Company that bungled Baghdad embassy repeats in Gabon

WASHINGTON — A year after problems emerged in the construction of the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, another State Department post being built largely by the same Kuwaiti-based company is engulfed by delays, recriminations, and an Inspector General's probe, according to U.S. officials.

The embassy building, in the central African nation of Gabon, was supposed to be finished by April 2009.

Instead, according to U.S. officials and to documents obtained by McClatchy, the $55 million complex is only 7 percent complete. Workers are still excavating the construction site in the Gabonese capital of Libreville, and early 2010 is the new target date for completion. State Department officials confirmed that the department's inspector general is actively examining the project, but declined to provide details.

Patrick Kennedy, the Under Secretary of State for Management, acknowledged serious problems with the facility.

"The department is always concerned about timely and efficient progress on all our construction contracts, and we are working with the contractor to correct deficiencies," Kennedy said in a telephone interview.

The Gabon embassy and another project, a new U.S. consulate in Surabaya, Indonesia, have been "plagued with problems" that the State Department is working to remedy, said Joe Toussaint, a senior official in the department's bureau of Overseas Building Operations.

While it is neither so large nor strategic as the Baghdad embassy, the post in Gabon is high on the State Department's list for replacement under a seven-year-old program to move U.S. diplomats to secure, modern facilities worldwide.

It also illustrates how problems that emerged during the tenure of former State Department buildings chief retired Army Maj. Gen. Charles Williams, who resigned late last year after a congressional outcry over the Baghdad embassy, are still being wrestled with.

State Department officials point out that the worldwide embassy replacement program, which could total $17.5 billion when completed, has produced 64 new facilities since 2001, the majority without significant problems.

The embassy in Gabon is being built under a State Department contract with Aurora LLC, based in Rockville, Md.

According to officials and documents, however, the majority of the construction — almost everything but the embassy's classified spaces — is being handled by Kuwait-based First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co.

First Kuwaiti built the new Baghdad embassy, the largest U.S. diplomatic post in the world. The project was plagued by delays, allegations of procurement irregularities and a fire safety system that was certified as operational even though it didn't work properly. Two State Department audits of that project are under way.

In Baghdad, U.S. diplomats have moved into residential areas on the 104-acre embassy complex, and plan to fully transition to the new site by Dec. 31.

State Department officials and others involved in the projects say that the Indonesia consulate is also troubled. It is 35 percent complete and will be at least five months late.

In one case, according to a non-government source with direct knowledge, classified drawings depicting the consulate's secure areas were compromised.

But the problems in Gabon are said to be worse.

Those involved with the project, some speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution, say First Kuwaiti has been slow to disburse funds needed to procure materials, and has had trouble recruiting local laborers to build the embassy. Workers brought in from neighboring Cameroon were recently sent back because they didn't have the proper work permits.

There's been near-constant turnover of senior managers overseeing the construction, those familiar with the project said.

An August study of the global embassy construction program by the State Department's inspector general reported that in Gabon, the "contractor, on site 11 months, had been unable to complete temporary facilities and was struggling through the rainy season."

First Kuwaiti didn't respond to a set of e-mailed questions about the project. Paul Jureidini, Aurora's general manager, said Monday that the project is getting back on track.

"We are turning things around, as far as I'm concerned," Jureidini said, adding that the project was already a year behind schedule when the company that won the original contract, Grunley-Walsh LLC, was sold and renamed Aurora. "We inherited what I would consider to be a mess," he said.

Industry sources have previously suggested that First Kuwaiti itself was behind the purchase of Grunley-Walsh, giving it a U.S. partner to bid on lucrative embassy work.

Jureidini said of his firm: "We're an American company. One hundred percent American. Owned by Americans."

State Department officials said First Kuwaiti and Aurora haven't turned things around quickly enough.

This year, Aurora and First Kuwaiti were allowed to bid on another State Department construction project, on the condition that they improve performance in Gabon, Indonesia and on a third project, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

"They failed to improve to the level that they said they would," and weren't awarded new work, said Toussaint, of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. While Aurora remains in the department's pool of contractors, he said, "We're keeping them in the shallow end of the pool (for) now."


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