US contractor in Iraq accused of electrocution deaths
July 13, 2008

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The biggest US military contractor in Iraq, KBR, was steeped in another scandal Friday as lawmakers, families and experts accused it of recklessly causing the electrocution deaths of US soldiers.

"While I had always been prepared to hear that one of my sons died by way of a firefight or a roadside bomb, I was dumbstruck to hear that my son was electrocuted while taking a shower in his living quarters," said Cheryl Harris, mother of army Staff Sergeant Ryan Maseth, who died in January.

Maseth's "burnt and smoldering" body was found under still-running, electrically charged water by a fellow soldier who kicked down the door of the bathroom at an army base in Baghdad, Harris told a hearing of the Senate Democratic policy committee.

KBR, a former subsidiary of the Halliburton energy firm which was once led by Vice President Dick Cheney, was contracted to maintain facilities at the base and had been informed of electrical problems in the building where Maseth died.

But, said Harris, KBR showed "extreme recklessness and a total disregard for public safety" by failing to fix the problem as well as others that have caused at least 13 electrocution deaths among soldiers and civilian contract workers in Iraq.

Larraine McGee also lost her son, National Guard Staff Sergeant Christopher Everett, to electrocution at another facility maintained by KBR, which won the "elephant contract" for Iraq, under which it is tasked with providing and maintaining housing for US forces.

"On September 7, 2005, Chris was power-washing a Humvee... when he was instantly killed by an electrical shock," his mother said.

The army had been aware that the generator supplying energy to the power washer was not properly grounded, and several soldiers had reported receiving electrical shocks from the equipment prior to her son's death, said McGee.

Still grief-stricken at the loss of her son, McGee also feels anger towards KBR, she told AFP.

"How can they stand there, an American company, and say they're supporting our troops?" she said as tears moistened her eyes.

"They are not supporting our troops. They're undermining our efforts. I don't know that I want to go so far as to say they're murdering our troops, but in essence if you take something that is so easy to fix but you don't even though you know there's a problem, that is homicide, in my mind," she said.

Debbie Crawford, who worked as an electrician for KBR in Iraq, drew a grim picture of incompetence, lack of accountability, poor leadership and poor workmanship by KBR.

"Qualified electricians found it difficult to deal with the complacency, the lack of leadership, the lack of tools and materials, and the lack of safety... Time and again we heard, 'You're in a war zone, what do you expect?' and 'If you don't like it you can go home,'" she said.

Although it was aware of the problems that caused the deaths of Everett and Maseth, KBR did not make repairs that could have spared the lives of US soldiers, said Crawford.

"KBR has claimed that its contract did not cover fixing potential hazards, only repairing items after they broke down," she said.

"It saddens and angers me that 11 American soldiers and two civilian contractors have died due to electrocution. Not in combat but at camps and bases where they should have felt the safest," she said.

Senator Byron Dorgan alluded to an official, high-level cover-up to shield the company.

"It seems to me that the largest contracts by far went to Halliburton and its former subsidiary KBR, and it also seems to me that very serious questions have resulted in allegations of improper misconduct" on the part of KBR, Dorgan said.

"We read about these things in the paper and then we don't hear about it any more," he said.

"Soldiers are losing their lives to fundamental mistakes by contractors and lack of oversight by the Pentagon. We have a responsibility to make sure someone is held accountable," said Dorgan.

The hearing was the 17th held by the policy committee into contractor malpractice in Iraq.

Halliburton and KBR were invited to the hearing but did not attend, Dorgan said.

Original Text