Kurkowski says LoBiondo failed to oversee Coast Guard project

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Friday, Oct. 3, 2008.)

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP

Democratic congressional candidate Dave Kurkowski blamed U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, for failed oversight on a $24 billion Coast Guard modernization that resulted in ships that were not seaworthy.

Kurkowski accused LoBiondo on Thursday of abdicating a key oversight role on the Deepwater project while his major campaign contributor, Lockheed Martin, and another firm installed ship radios that were not waterproof and made changes to Coast Guard cutters that left them structurally unable to withstand choppy seas.

“The military contractors did not adequately oversee their projects,” Kurkowski said. “Subsequent investigations by the new Democratic majority revealed poorly managed projects and even cover-ups. We had whistleblowers who were so stonewalled by the powers-that-be that they resorted to posting video on YouTube.”

The Deepwater program is a large-scale modernization of the Coast Guard’s aging fleet of boats and helicopters. When Deepwater was initiated in 1997, the Coast Guard still had at least one World War II-era ship in service.

Plans called for $500 million per year over 20 years, but it wasn’t until after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that Congress topped the $100 million figure in annual funding.

In 2002, the Coast Guard awarded the project to a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The Coast Guard delegated project management and much of the oversight to Lockheed and Northrop.

LoBiondo, R-2nd, was arguably Deepwater’s key backer in the House during his tenure, from 2001 to 2006, as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. He consistently pushed for additional funding at a quicker pace, concerned that the Coast Guard’s outdated fleet wasn’t equipped to handle border security in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“This was the most important project that came under his jurisdiction,” Kurkowski said. “You don’t just turn that over to a contractor.”

LoBiondo disputed Kurkowski’s criticisms through spokesmen, noting he held 14 hearings on Deepwater and helped author legislation requiring independent investigations by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. He was in meetings Thursday afternoon and could not be reached for direct comment.

“In hindsight, should the Coast Guard have done more oversight internally?” LoBiondo spokesman Jason Galanes said. “Absolutely.”

Galanes, however, stressed that the problems with the boats were just one part of a massive modernization of more than 200 vehicles. For example, Deepwater renovations led to increased engine capabilities of HH-65 helicopters stationed at Air Station Atlantic City, LoBiondo campaign manager Kevin Tomafsky noted.

Deepwater remains on the congressional agenda.

Last week, the House passed the Integrated Deepwater Program Reform Act, which prohibits the Coast Guard from using a private contractor as the “lead systems integrator.” The Coast Guard reclaimed management of Deepwater from Lockheed and Northrop in April 2007 and has sought a $96.8 million refund for eight revamped ships whose hulls buckled in open seas.

Kurkowski criticized LoBiondo for not raising concerns earlier in the life of the Deepwater project.

In part, it took critics such as Michael De Kort, one of Lockheed’s lead engineers on Deepwater, to draw attention to the problems.

De Kort said he raised concerns about structural failures in the Coast Guard’s 123-foot vessels but found his superiors ignored his concerns. He said he also reached out to Coast Guard and congressional officials, only to find similar rejections, despite De Kort’s key role in the project’s development. De Kort eventually posted his critiques on YouTube in 2006, drawing national attention. He subsequently lost his job with Lockheed.

Among those who did not return his phone calls was LoBiondo, De Kort said in an interview last week.

“Not only did he not return my calls but I find his overall performance in the matter to be unacceptable,” De Kort wrote in an e-mail Thursday to The Press of Atlantic City. “He took virtually no action in the matter — spending most of his time in the hearings spinning.”

Galanes responded, “The congressman’s office has no record of correspondence or a phone call prior to or after learning about the video.”

LoBiondo voted for the Deepwater reform bill. Kurkowski criticized him for not co-sponsoring it.

LoBiondo said last month he chose not to because it did not include additional funding for the Coast Guard to pay for new employees to handle the additional management the bill required. After legislation was added to add new funding, LoBiondo supported it.

Kurkowski also criticized the failure to complete the program in the last five years, but when questioned, he did not know the project was planned to take place over 20 years. LoBiondo was one of several key legislators, along with U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Trent Lott, R-Miss., who consistently pushed to speed up the timetable.

Still, Kurkowski said LoBiondo has never had to answer for his role in Deepwater, largely because few people know of it.

“I think Deepwater has been underreported in our district,” Kurkowski said. “When I talk to people, I think maybe 2 to 3 percent have heard of it. Some think it’s a pool in a casino.”

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