By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In the last week, the huge public-works campaign to rebuild the Trinity River through downtown has been rocked by revelations from Washington of deception and inefficiency, but the even greater devastation has been to the moral and political integrity of Mayor Ron Kirk and much of this city's leadership.
On October 3, the Office of Management and Budget under President Bush sent a scathing letter to the secretary of the Army, leaked to the media last week, accusing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of deliberately deceiving the public about the supposed benefits of the Trinity project.
The OMB letter tells the secretary, who is over the Corps, that the Corps, in its deal with Dallas, has been trying to foist off a project that actually will make flooding worse and will expose property and human life to greater risk than necessary at enormous cost to the federal government and local taxpayers.
Jim Blackburn, the Houston environmental lawyer representing critics of the river plan, a veteran of environmental battles all over the country, was clearly breathless after reading the OMB report:
"At its center, this is as corrupt as anything I've ever run across," he said last week. "Why should we be putting criminals in jail if the city of Dallas won't obey the law? These are outright outlaw actions."
No time would be a good time for this kind of revelation, but the country's current circumstances make it worse than ever. Even Corps officials seem to understand the larger implications here. Explaining to me why it may take a while for these issues to be resolved, Ron Ruffennach, spokesman for the Fort Worth district of the Corps, said he did not think the secretary of the Army will be able to deal with any of this soon.
"Let's be realistic about putting too much on his plate other than what he's dealing with internationally," Ruffennach said.
In spite of that, Mayor Kirk conceded to me last week that he has been actively involved in an effort to pull off a slippery end-run around the OMB through the Congress.
"I absolutely am going to lobby Congress to get this project approved," Kirk said angrily over the telephone.
The specific trick Kirk and city lobbyists in Washington are trying to pull off is the insertion of what is called "sufficiency language" in an appropriations conference committee report. In effect, this language would say that the Congress deems the project to be legal and in full compliance with federal law and rules regardless of whether the regulatory and oversight agencies agree. It would be a rare and bizarre use of law to put the Trinity River project above the law.
The mayor and his lobbyists may succeed--they may already have succeeded by the time this column comes out--but I also wonder if they may fail. I have a two-bit theory that they are up against a foe here whom they least suspect. I think the OMB report came about in the first place because of some unusual back-channel whistle-blowing from within the Corps itself. I think the Corps wants out of this thing.
The best hard evidence I can offer is that the Corps in effect already killed this project for the time being a month ago, in an action that Mayor Kirk has kept concealed from the City Council. In early September, the Corps informed parties to an environmental lawsuit that the Trinity River project "has been postponed indefinitely."
"Currently there are not plans to reactivate the solicitation in the next fiscal year," a Corps lawyer said in a letter to the parties.
By shelving the project, the Corps gave up a $2 million appropriation that had been approved for "general construction," Ruffennach confirmed to me. He said the reason for shutting down the Trinity project was that the Corps knew the OMB review was under way and wanted to wait to see what the OMB would find.
The ability of the Corps to carry out its basic duties has been severely compromised in the last year by a series of allegations of fraud and deception in Corps engineering studies, especially for projects on the Upper Mississippi. The real reason I think the Trinity project may have been covertly red-flagged from within the Corps itself is that very credible evidence of official deception in the Trinity project has been produced by critics of the plan, who have found what they say is dead-on proof of manipulation of computer models.
One of those experts, Larry Dunbar, a former Corps employee and hydrological engineer who works for Blackburn in Houston, confirmed to me last week that he had been a source for much of the information on which the OMB based its report. Dunbar also is the person who came up with evidence of phony computer models used to justify the Trinity project.
Dunbar told me it was clear from his conversations with the OMB that someone at the top had drawn a fat question mark over the Trinity project.
"This project got flagged somehow when the Bush administration was putting together a budget," he said. "Somebody decided that the OMB was going to review it. But I'm not quite sure how that happened or how it came off."