Like so many others who often find themselves in the middle of extraordinary circumstances, Bunnatine “Bunny” Hayes Greenhouse never expected to be the object of attention by government officials, ethics advocates and United States senators for her role as a high-ranking government whistleblower.
“It has been very humbling to find out that so many people think that what I have done is extraordinary,” she said. “I was doing what I felt was right — correcting something that was blatantly wrong.”
On Monday, September 24th, Greenhouse was the featured speaker on the campus of Loyola Marymount University for a lecture that was sponsored by the university’s Center for Accounting Ethics, Governance, and Public Interest, due to her involvement as a whistleblower regard- ing the practice of awarding fraudulent, sole source, or no-bid government contracts to private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A one-time top civilian procurement official in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who was responsible for over $23 billion in federal contracting, Greenhouse addressed a large audience of community members, faculty and students in a lecture titled “Ethics and the Whistleblower.”
Greenhouse told her audience about the various challenges that she faced during her tenure in the Army Corps of Engineers, where her career took an unexpected turn in 2004 after she discovered the depth of allegedly improper activity in awarding government contracts.
She alleged that the then-secret no-bid contracts awarded to Kellogg, Brown and Root [KBR], a subsidiary of Halliburton, were “the most blatant and improper contracting abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career.”
Although the Department of Defense’s inspector general called for an investigation into Greenhouse’s allegations, no probe was ever initiated.
In 2003, a former KBR manager, Anthony J. Martin, pleaded guilty to receiving $200,000 in kickbacks from a Kuwaiti company that was building the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the company was forced to reimburse the federal government $27.4 million after it was learned that they had overcharged the government in a food services contract in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, the company allegedly overcharged taxpayers $61 million for military fuel payments.
In an interview prior to her speaking engagement, the Army Corps of Engineers senior executive discussed her plight, which began when she discovered that private contractors had been defrauding the government to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. She emphasized that she was speaking for herself and not as an executive officer of the Army Corps of Engineers.
“I never thought of myself as a whistleblower, because I was working internally with my organization and the Department of Defense when it came to the improprieties that I recognized,” Greenhouse said.
She brought these infractions to the attention of Army General Carl Strock on October 1st, 2004, and four days later she received a letter saying that she would be removed from her position and demoted.
“I felt that the briefing (with Strock) went very well, so needless to say, I was very surprised about the letter,” Greenhouse said.
Greenhouse questioned the legalities of the Restore Iraqi Oil contract when she learned that there were serious conflicts of interest with KBR, which after designing guidelines on how the entire operation would be conducted, was given the contract, even though federal protocols exclude the contractor from being able to compete for a contract where they have designed the operational guidelines.
She said that she believed that military commanders were not interested in civilian executives looking out for any abuses in contracting.
“That was not a skill that they were seeking,” she said. “What they wanted was the flexibility to do whatever they wanted to do, and that was not within tolerable limits.”
Greenhouse feels that many military commanders believed that as a civilian officer, her position was too powerful, but she did not see it that way.
“I took my position, as an oath of office, to do the job, protect the public trust and to make sure that the conduct of procurement in the Corps was at its highest degree of integrity,” she said. “And nothing was going to make me compromise that.”
“Federal law tells us that the conduct of procurement in the federal government must be handled with the highest degree of integrity, with the highest degree of impartiality and with preferential treatment toward none,” Greenhouse added. “Anytime that there are infractions, I decided that I was going to make sure to activate the proper checks and balances to remove that kind of casual and clubby relationship that has been going on for years in the Corps.”
Lawrence Kalbers, Ph.D., who is the director of the university’s Center for Accounting Ethics, Governance, and Public Interest and the R. Chad Drier Chair in Accounting at LMU’s College of Business, was instrumental in bringing Greenhouse to the university to give her lecture after seeing her speak at another function.
“I was so impressed with Mrs. Greenhouse and her strength, courage and integrity, that I decided that I wanted to have her address our students and faculty,” said Kalbers.
Stephen M. Kohn, the president and general counsel of the National Whistleblowers Center in Washington, D.C., feels that Greenhouse’s case is special. “It’s very unique, based on her position in the federal government. It’s very rare when someone with executive status is identified as a whistleblower,” Kohn told The Argonaut. In most cases, a high-powered executive in the private or public sectors typically waits until retirement or they are ousted before they go public, Kohn noted.
Last week, Greenhouse was one of several speakers who addressed a United States Senate Democratic Policy Committee on the abuses of private contractors in Iraq.
While she is proud of her actions, Greenhouse feels that the term whistleblower has taken on a pejorative connotation.
“When I was testifying before Congress, one of the senators said that he thought that the term should be revised,” she said. “Many people infer that being a whistleblower is akin to being a snitch,” she said. “And that’s not what it’s about at all.
“Being a whistleblower is about the truth; it’s about making sure that when there are improprieties or misconduct occurring, you don’t turn your head away from it.”
She also feels that the protections for those who go public with government illegalities do not often have sufficient protection from reprisals.
“Only one percent of people who go to court as whistleblowers have prevailed,” Greenhouse pointed out.
Whistleblowers are entitled to protection from retribution even if the employer has not done anything illegally, according to federal statutes. But advocates of the current law believe that there are instances when employers are able to circumvent the law and retaliate against employees who speak out against improprieties or illegal actions.
On September 12th, four United States senators introduced bipartisan legislation that is designed to protect taxpayers from abuses and fraud by government contractors. The False Claims Act Correction Act is designed to close loopholes that exist in the current law, which allows private citizens to file legal actions against contractors who defraud the federal government.
Proponents of whistleblowers were overjoyed when they learned of the proposed bill.
“The majority of all civil fraud recoveries in the United States are based on whistleblower disclosures,” said Kohn. “Because of the effectiveness of [existing False Claims Act legislation], powerful corporate interests have aggressively attacked the law in court, creating loopholes which have undermined the law and cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.”
Kalbers believes that Greenhouse is a prime example of how it is possible to maintain your integrity and respect the law, and her actions underscore the importance to accounting professionals of a standard that is mandated by ethical guidelines.
“The sense of moral courage to ultimately do what is right is required by the profession of accounting and their professional code of ethics,” said Kalbers. “And for students to understand that there are people who will go to great lengths to preserve that public interest, to do their job and have the integrity to do that is a great role model.”
This also is part of the university’s mission on ethical conduct, and having Greenhouse speak at LMU served as a form of supplementing the students’ education.
“We do look at this as part of our curriculum, and we talk about this in class often, so this is really part of the education process for us,” Kalbers said.
Despite what she feels have been attempts by the military to damage her professional reputation, Greenhouse says that she has no regrets for her part in shining a light on fraudulent government contracts. “Not at all,” she asserted. “Leadership is all about making a difference without regard for the consequences.
“I firmly believe that integrity in government is not an optionÖ it is an obligation.”