Whistleblowers say shoddy construction at a VA facility at Jefferson Barracks puts veterans in danger and wastes taxpayer money. Credit: KMOV
SOUTH ST. LOUIS COUNTY (KMOV.com) -
Veterans are at risk and millions of your tax dollars being wasted, according to whistleblowers coming forward only to News 4.
Construction workers say they're losing sleep over shoddy construction at a $360 million dollar project at Jefferson Barracks.
One of the workers sounding the alarm is an engineer with the VA. They say officials ignored their concerns until investigative reporter Lauren Trager got involved.
“It keeps me up at night. I haven't had a good night's sleep for the last nine months,” said one whistleblower.
“It's absurd. It's your tax dollars hard at work,” said another.
Worried about retaliation, both men want to be anonymous. Each has worked closely on one phase of a construction project at the VA medical facility at Jefferson Barracks. The portion they are working on was slated to cost about $105 million and be done in 2016 and consists of brand new clinic and rehab facilities for vets.
It is work they're happy to do.
“I have done three tours in combat, my son has done three tours in combat. My nephew did a tour in Iraq and he didn't come back quite right,” said one of the workers.
But it wasn't long after the project started, they noticed major problems.
“This is shoddy construction,” said one whistleblower, definitively.
News 4 obtained photos and the whistleblowers provided pictures showing huge cracks in the concrete floors that they say are 40 to 50 feet long. They also showed pictures of rusted out wall frames and doors, water infiltrating areas with live wires and even a waterfall cascading out of already insulated duct work, which they say could be a terrible breeding ground for mold.
“These are inexcusable construction errors,” said one of the whistleblowers.
“We are probably talking about 2,000 feet of wall and probably 50-80 door frames,” said another.
“That have rust on them, right now?” asked Investigative Reporter Lauren Trager. “Correct,” the whistleblower said.
When brought to the attention of VA officials and the contractors, they say many of the problems weren't fixed. Instead, the whistleblowers say the problems were simply covered up.
“I would say probably 5 percent of those bad items has been replaced. 95 percent of them are still there,” said one of the workers.
The whistleblowers say the health and safety of the veterans are being put at risk.
“They put their life on the line and we can't seem to get a construction project to work right for them,” said one of the workers.
“Would you want to send one of your loved ones to that building?” asked Trager. “No. I would not send my son to that building. I wouldn't send my friends there,” the whistleblower said.
They say it's money that’s just going down the drain. The work, they say, will need to be redone, now or sometime in the future.
“And a few years down the road, there would be no teeth to enforce the contract and make the correction,” said one of the whistleblowers.
And there's more waste, they say, too. The whistleblowers claim that the contractors are not doing all the things required in the contract, but are still getting paid.
Some example of their claims include:
Personnel not showing up to work. One whistleblower estimates the waste of tax dollars is close to $700,000.
An asbestos line wasn't removed, but taxpayers still paid the contractor $500,000.
And a walkway wasn't built, but the public still shelled out $200,000 for it, the whistleblowers say.
The contractor is cashing in when whistleblowers say taxpayers should be getting credits for work not performed.
“Who's to blame here, the VA, the contractor or both?” asked Investigative Reporter Lauren Trager. “Both. Equally both responsible,” said one of the whistleblowers.
In fact, some argue there's a pattern of construction problems with the VA.
A facility in Colorado made headlines for being billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, and a VA hospital in New Orleans was also under fire for being behind.
“It's not their money, they don't care, it's taxpayer money, they don't feel it in their wallet, so what do they care,” said one of the whistleblowers.
Congress became so fed up with construction problems, they took power away from the VA to manage construction that costs more than $100 million.
But that doesn't apply to the project at Jefferson Barracks which began beforehand and the whistleblowers say, despite the past problems, no one seemed to be paying attention to their concerns.
News 4 reviewed emails and letters sent to higher-ups with the contractors Walsh and Alberici and the VA, but the whistleblowers say nothing was done.
News 4 then spoke to members of Congress.
After News told her about the problems, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill questioned a VA official from St. Louis at a hearing in the Senate last month.
“Are you aware of any of these concerns of integrity and quality of construction there?” McCaskill asked. “At this point, we have no concern of any serious issues in this project, moving forward,” said Keith Repko with the VA.
But after the hearing, a VA spokesperson told us they are investigating the concerns. They declined News 4’s request for an on-camera interview. Instead, they sent a statement saying, in part:
"VA is investigating… and working with all parties to respond to these concerns."
The VA spokesperson says that they working to make sure the project has no significant issues, cost increases or delays.
But the whistleblowers say, at the risk of their own jobs, they couldn't stand by any longer.
“I want to make sure my friends and family get quality work that they deserve,” said one of the workers.
News 4 made multiple attempts over several weeks to reach the two contractors on the project, but never heard back.
Friday, News 4 received a copy of a letter sent from Senator McCaskill to the VA Inspector General, asking for continual updates as the VA reviews these complaints.
The letter confirms a complaint was submitted to the VA back in January. But News 4 learned the VA only responded just last month.
The Senator also has asked for a briefing sometime before the end of next week.
One of the whistleblowers had a conference call with Senator McCaskill's office Monday afternoon after News 4 put them in touch.
The whistleblowers say they're glad someone is finally paying attention to them.
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