These Houston residents dream of moving to where the air is clear

By Loren Elliott

HOUSTON (Reuters) – On the east side of Houston, the white plumes of the Texas oil and chemical refineries are a constant backdrop for residents of the Manchester neighborhood.

Late at night or early in the morning when plants burn off excess gases, the flames light up the whole sky in the neighborhood.

Some residents say the air has a chemical-based smell that they find hard to describe but disappears once they drive a few miles away from the homes that stretch along the Houston Ship Channel, a waterway connecting the plants to the ocean. They claim that the pollution is taking a toll on their health, although the scientific evidence does not prove that.

“I want to get out of here and go to the country and find some cleaner air,” said Eugene Barragan, a 56-year-old electrician who has lived most of his life by the refineries. “It would be better for me and the kids.”

Doctors have found four lumps in his lungs and now more growths, according to the chest X-rays and medical records he showed Reuters. The first ones were not cancerous. Barragan says he has not been able to afford imaging of the new growths. He hopes they are benign so he can watch his children grow up.

“When I work hard, I start coughing and coughing and can’t stop,” he said. “I know a lot of people who have problems like that.”

POLLUTION REDUCED

Lillian Riojas, Valero Energy Corp’s chief spokeswoman, said the company has worked to reduce pollution at its refinery since purchasing it in 1997.

In the 22 years since Valero took over the refinery, ambient benzene levels have dropped 63% to 0.34 parts per billion, according to data from 1997 to 2019 from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“There’s a narrative that air quality is getting worse, but that’s not what the emission data is showing,” Riojas said.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which enforces federal and state environmental laws, gives Valero’s refinery the top compliance level possible, said Andrew Keese, a spokesman for the agency. The other nearby refineries and chemical plants earned a compliance rating of satisfactory.

Of the other plants bordering Manchester, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co has the second highest-rating for compliance with environmental regulations, Keese said.

Goodyear “implemented several changes that resulted in lower emissions from our facility,” said Connie Deibel, a company spokeswoman.

LyondellBasell Industries, TPC Group [TPCL.UL] and Flint Hills Resources, which operate facilities near Manchester, did not reply to requests for comment about pollution in the area.

NO MONEY TO MOVE

A 2007 study, the most recent available, of nearly 1,000 childhood cancer cases by the University of Texas found children living within 2 miles (3 km) of the Houston Ship Channel had a 56% higher risk of contracting acute lymphocytic leukemia than children living within 10 miles (16 km) of the Ship Channel. Researchers’ analysis suggests an association between childhood leukemia and air pollution. However the study, funded by Houston’s health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could not prove the pollutants caused the illnesses.

For years, Dennys Nieto wanted to leave the neighborhood but was only recently able to afford to move her and her family to a different part of Texas.

“I suffer from asthma and pain in my lungs. It feels like I’m being hit in the lungs,” Nieto said of her old neighborhood. “Headaches, inflammation and pain in my throat. And also I have erratic blood pressure and heartbeat.”

She checks her blood pressure and listens to her heart beat regularly.

“In the air I feel it’s this we’re all breathing. This is why I want to leave from here,” Nieto said of the Manchester area. “I want to go somewhere that is far from the refineries so that I can repair my life, repair my health and live better.”

 

(Reporting by Loren Elliott; additional reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Texas church shooter wore wig and fake beard, says security head who shot him

(Reuters) – A man wearing a wig and fake beard raised suspicion when he walked into a church service in Texas before opening fire with a shotgun and killing two people, a volunteer security guard who shot the assailant said on Monday.

The victims of Sunday’s shooting, identified as Anton Wallace, 64, of Fort Worth and Richard White, 67, of River Oaks, were also members of the civilian security force at West Freeway Church of Christ, the state’s attorney general said.

Jack Wilson, the head of the security detail, fired a single shot that took down the gunman, who has been identified by authorities as Keith Thomas Kinnunen, 43, of River Oaks.

Wallace was serving communion at the church in the Fort Worth suburb of White Settlement and was approached twice by the suspect in the moments before the gunfire rang out.

“When he sat back down the second time, shortly after that, he stood up, turned, and produced a shotgun,” Wilson told NBC News.

Wilson and White began “drawing our weapons. Richard did get his gun out of the holster. He was, I think, able to get a shot off, but it ended up going into the wall. The shooter had turned and shot him and then shot Tony and then started to turn to go toward the front of the auditorium,” Wilson told NBC.

“I fired one round. The subject went down.”

Kinnunen was not a regular at the church and raised suspicion when he walked in wearing the wig and fake beard that he kept adjusting, Wilson said.

The reason for Kinnunen’s actions are unclear. State Attorney General Ken Paxton told a news conference that the gunman may have been mentally ill.

TRUMP PRAISES ARMED ‘HEROES’

The attack and response by armed civilians were likely to further inflame a nationwide debate over gun violence ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign.

“Our prayers are with the families of the victims and the congregation of yesterday’s church attack,” President Donald Trump said on Twitter.

“It was over in 6 seconds thanks to the brave parishioners who acted to protect 242 fellow worshippers. Lives were saved by these heroes, and Texas laws allowing them to carry arms!,” Trump said.

Local TV station NBC DFW, citing unidentified law enforcement sources, said Kinnunen had a criminal record that included charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2009. A Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman declined to comment.

Texas allows concealed carry in places of worship under a law that took effect in September. It was passed following a shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017 that killed 26 people.

Paxton encouraged other states to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons for defense in case of active shooters.

Wilson had previously trained other churchgoers to use firearms, and had his own shooting range, Paxton said.

But gun control advocates and some religious leaders have argued such laws have no place in houses of worship.

“Instead of looking for a success story in a tragedy, lawmakers should be talking about how they can prevent gun violence in the first place,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Gabriella Borter in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Culver City, California; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

Gunman in Texas church, victims identified as local men

(Reuters) – The gunman who opened fire in a Texas church on Sunday, killing two before being shot dead by parishioners, was identified as Keith Thomas Kinnunen, who lived in the nearby town of River Oaks, state officials said on Monday.

His two victims killed at West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas, were identified as Anton Wallace, 64, of Fort Worth and Richard White, 67, also of River Oaks, the Texas Department of Public Safety said.

A live video caught the terrifying moment when the gunman stood next to the pews wearing a dark hood and started firing a long gun before members of the church’s volunteer security team shot him in the church located in a suburb northwest of Fort Worth.

“A man entered the church and sat with parishioners. During the service, the man removed a shotgun from his person and fired the weapon,” the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement.

“The gunman has been identified as Keith Thomas Kinnunen, 43, from River Oaks,” the statement said.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told reporters on Monday the shooter had been to the church several times in the past and may have been mentally ill, but authorities were still investigating a possible motive.

“They welcome people who are transient or homeless into their church. They welcomed this guy into their church,” Paxton said.

CRIMINAL RECORD

Local TV station NBC DFW, citing unidentified law enforcement sources, said Kinnunen had a criminal record that included charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2009. A Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman did not immediately confirm that.

The Fort Worth Fire Department said three people, including the suspected shooter, were transported from the scene in critical condition on Sunday. Two, including the suspect, died en route to the hospital, said Macara Trusty, a spokeswoman for local emergency services provider MedStar, said in a phone interview. The third died later, the Dallas Morning News reported.

Two more people sustained minor injuries as they ducked for cover inside the church, Trusty said.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick praised the church’s volunteer security guards for taking down the shooter.

“Because of the quick action of these two men, this evil event was over in six seconds,” he said in a statement issued on Sunday.

One of the two guards said in a Facebook post that he was acting against evil. “The events at West Freeway Church of Christ put me in a position that I would hope no one would have to be in, but evil exists and I had to take out an active shooter in church,” he said.

Patrick said a new state law allowing concealed carry in places of worship enabled the parishioners to stop the gunman. The law, which took effect in September, was passed in the wake of a shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017 that left 26 dead.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the law and encouraged other states to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons for defense in case of active shooters. Gun control advocates and some religious leaders have criticized such laws, arguing that weapons have no place in houses of worship.

“I do hope that through this tragedy, more churches will prepare the way this church did, not just in Texas but really across the nation,” Paxton said. “This is the model for the future.”

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; editing by Bill Tarrant and Dan Grebler)

Tornadoes sweep across southeastern U.S., killing at least three: officials

A tornado spins during stormy weather in Mangum, Oklahoma, U.S., May 20, 2019, in this still image taken from video from social media. Lorraine Matti via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Tornadoes swept across swaths of the southeastern United States killing at least two people in northern Alabama and one person in Louisiana, tearing roofs off buildings, splintering trees and downing powerlines, officials said.

Most of the tornado and storm damage was reported in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas starting early Monday, sheriff’s officials told local media.

Survey teams will be sent out at first light Tuesday to assess the extent of the damage, said Rich Thompson, a lead forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.

“Initial reports suggest first tornado was reported in Louisiana around 10:35 (a.m.) CST and first tornado fatality was somewhere around 11:18 a.m. CST,” said NWS meteorologist Jared Guyer.

More rain and wind is expected overnight and into Tuesday as the storms push off into southeastern Georgia, Florida’s panhandle and the Carolina coasts in the morning hours.

At least 28,300 people had power outages in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, according to the tracking site Poweroutage.Us.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; additional reporting and writing by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

New evacuation order for Texas city hit by explosion, chemical fire

FILE PHOTO: A process tower flies through air after exploding at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant, after an earlier massive explosion sparked a blaze at the plant in Port Neches, Texas, U.S., November 27, 2019. REUTERS/Erwin Seba/File Photo

New evacuation order for Texas city hit by explosion, chemical fire
HOUSTON (Reuters) – Authorities have issued a second evacuation order in a week for residents of a city in the U.S. state of Texas after an explosion and fire at a petrochemical plant.

Officials issued the order late on Wednesday in Port Neches after air monitors detected elevated levels of a cancer-causing petrochemical produced at the TPC Group facility that was struck by the blaze and blast.

The fire at the 218-acre (88-hectare) plant, which was put out on Tuesday after burning for six days, had earlier prompted the evacuation of about 60,000 residents from several cities in southeast Texas.

Air monitors on Wednesday posted elevated levels of butadiene, a cancer-causing chemical. The plant makes flammable chemicals used in the production of synthetic rubber and a gasoline additive.

Schools were closed for the rest of the week, officials said. Schools in Port Neches and nearby Groves had reopened on Tuesday.

TPC Group did not immediately respond to requests for information on the butadiene emissions.

The latest evacuation, issued by the City of Port Neches and Jefferson County Judge Branick, replaced a shelter-in-place ordered earlier on Wednesday.

Elevated butadiene levels had been measured in some parts of the city and could cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, irritated eyes and throat, the statement said. They did not pose a serious health risk, or a flammability or explosion risk, it said.

A local temporary shelter for residents was re-established, the statement added.

TPC Group’s Port Neches plant suffered a fire after an explosion on Nov. 27 that injured three workers. Officials have not determined the cause of the explosion and fire, which began in a butadiene processing unit.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba and Sumita Layek; Editing by Richard Pullin and Timothy Heritage)

Texas chemical fire that forced evacuations burns for third day

HOUSTON (Reuters) – The fire at a petrochemical plant that prompted thousands of people to flee from four Texas communities burned for a third day on Friday with officials huddling as investigations were launched.

The fiery blast at a TPC Group facility on Port Neches, Texas, on Wednesday injured three workers, blew locked doors off their hinges and was felt in communities far from the site. The plant makes chemicals used in production of synthetic rubber, resins and an octane-boosting component of gasoline.

Firefighting crews continued to battle the blaze on Friday, according to TPC, and local mayors, fire officials were called to a meeting with the region’s top executive. Federal and state investigators were searching for the cause of the blaze and a Texas pollution regulator criticized the spate of such fires.

About 60,000 residents in four communities near the site were ordered to leave their homes Wednesday afternoon when a major, secondary blast prompted fears of flames reaching large storage tanks of the petrochemicals.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Three injured in Texas petrochemical plant blast

Flames rise over a petrochemical plant after an explosion in a still image from video in Port Neches, Texas, U.S. November 27, 2019. 12NewsNow.com via REUTERS.

By Erwin Seba

PORT NECHES, Texas (Reuters) – Three workers were injured in an early morning explosion on Wednesday that sparked a blaze at a Texas petrochemical plant, the latest in a series of chemical plant accidents in the region.

An initial explosion at a TPC Group complex in Port Neches, Texas, was followed by secondary blasts, shattering windows, blowing locked doors off their hinges and prompting officials to evacuate homes within a half-mile radius of the facility, which about 90 miles east of Houston.

Toby Baker, head of the state’s pollution regulator, criticized the “unacceptable trend of significant incidents” in the region and pledged to review the state’s compliance efforts.

The fiery blast follows others at petrochemical producers and storage facilities in Texas. A March blaze at chemical storage complex outside Houston burned for days and was followed a month later by a fire at a KMCO LLC plant northeast of Houston that killed one worker and injured a second. A fire at an Exxon Mobil Corp chemical plant in Baytown, Texas, in July injured 37.

People more than 30 miles away from the complex, which supplies petrochemicals for synthetic rubber and resins and makes a gasoline additive, were shaken awake by the 1 a.m. CT (0700 GMT) explosion, sources familiar with the fire-fighting and rescue operations said.

Some homes close to the plant sustained heavy damage and local police were going door-to-door to check if residents were injured, said the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

One of the three wounded workers was flown by helicopter to a Houston hospital’s burns unit, the sources said.

Peyton Keith, a TPC spokesman, said fire officials were determined to let the fire in a butadiene processing unit burn itself out, and were focused on keeping the flames from spreading. He could not say when the fire could be extinguished.

All three of the workers taken to hospital were treated and released.

There was no immediate information on possible emissions from the blaze, pollution regulator Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said. No impacts to water were reported.

The plant employs 175 people and routinely has 50 contract workers on site. The company said the explosion occurred in a processing unit.

“We cannot speak to the cause of the incident or the extent of damage,” the company said.

TPC processes petrochemicals for use in the manufacture of synthetic rubber, nylon, resins, plastics and MBTE, a gasoline additive. The company supplies more than a third of the feedstock butadiene in North America, according to its website.

“Right now, our focus is on protecting the safety of responders and the public, and minimizing any impact to the environment,” TPC Group added.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston and K. Sathya Narayanan in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Arpan Varghese, editing by Louise Heavens and Bernadette Baum)

Special Report: Ex-workers say U.S. military landlord falsified records to get bonuses

By M.B. Pell

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) – A U.K. company that provides housing to U.S. military families came under official investigation earlier this year, after Reuters disclosed it had faked maintenance records to pocket performance bonuses at an Oklahoma Air Force base.

At the time, Balfour Beatty Communities said it strove to correctly report its maintenance work. It blamed any problems on a sole former employee at the Oklahoma base.

Now, Reuters has found that Balfour Beatty employees systematically doctored records in a similar scheme at a Texas base.

In June, Reuters, working in partnership with CBS News, documented how Balfour Beatty Communities kept two sets of records at Oklahoma’s Tinker Air Force Base. The accurate records, not shared with the military but seen in part by Reuters, showed tardiness in making repairs at homes plagued by asbestos, leaks and mold. The other set – filed with the Air Force – was altered to show near-perfect performance in making repairs, helping the company earn millions in fees for a job well done.

Balfour Beatty has been pursuing a similar practice at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. With bosses pressing them to meet repair goals, two former Balfour Beatty employees said they were involved in forging records to make it appear their employer completed maintenance work on time at the Texas base, even as work lagged or was never finished.

Stacy Nelson, Balfour’s Lackland manager from 2013 to 2016, said she felt pressure to manipulate records to make it appear the company consistently hit maintenance goals. She said she went along with the effort because, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she needed to keep her job and benefits.

“You either make these numbers match so we can get the incentive fees, or you may not have a job tomorrow,” Nelson said, characterizing the pressure she felt she was under. “We fudged the numbers, and even now it’s not easy to say that. I hate to admit it.”

Another former worker, Teresa Anderson, who created maintenance records, said she doctored the completion dates and times. Balfour Beatty fired both employees, though for reasons unrelated to falsifying records.

Internal company emails and maintenance reports confirm their accounts of being pressured to hit goals. In one case in 2015, reports showed the company completed 69% of repairs on time. After a Balfour Beatty manager called for higher scores, the pair changed the rate to above 95%, records show, triggering the bonus.

Lackland and Tinker aren’t the only bases where Balfour Beatty faces accusations of falsifying its maintenance reports. In Montana, a former manager said her staff regularly doctored records at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

In all, five former Balfour Beatty employees, working at three different bases, have told Reuters they filed false maintenance reports to help the company pocket millions in bonuses.

In a statement, Balfour Beatty said it is working to improve the quality of service at all its bases. “We know we have to continue to demonstrate progress in order to rebuild confidence in our service, and we are determined to do so,” the statement said.

The company did not directly respond to specific questions about the falsification of maintenance and work-order records documented by Reuters in Texas and elsewhere.

Since the initial Reuters-CBS report from Oklahoma, Balfour Beatty says it has started an investigation into the fraud allegations, led by its outside counsel Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP. It has also sought an independent audit of the incentive fees approved by the Air Force. Auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers and law firm Hunton Andrews declined comment.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations are pursuing fraud investigations at Tinker and two other Air Force bases where the company serves as landlord, said John Henderson, the Air Force assistant secretary for installations. They are Travis in California and Fairchild in Washington state. OSI is investigating additional allegations at Mountain Home in Idaho.

Henderson said he is “concerned” about the latest Reuters findings at Lackland and has referred the matter to the Office of Special Investigations.

The Army is also investigating “allegations” against Balfour Beatty, said Lieutenant Colonel Crystal Boring. In August, Boring said the service’s Inspector General was examining the company; more recently, she said the IG is not involved in the probe, but that she could not name the investigating authority or discuss the broader inquiry because it is ongoing.

A series of Reuters reports in 2018 exposed slum-like conditions in family housing at many U.S. military bases, sparking action by Congress to crack down on the private landlords who run the facilities. In Washington, the Senate Armed Services Committee is working to upgrade military housing through the defense funding bill or standalone legislation, said committee chair Jim Inhofe. Balfour Beatty must fix substandard housing and, should any inquiries find wrongdoing, return any ill-gotten bonus payments, the Oklahoma Republican said.

“If Balfour Beatty proves they aren’t up to the challenge, we’ll find someone who is — someone who is committed to doing right by our service members and their families,” the senator said.

PERSISTENT LEAKS, DISAPPEARING PROBLEMS

Service families continue to report squalid conditions in their homes on military bases.

In June, Roxanne Roellchen, her active-duty husband and five children moved into a Lackland house with a leaking roof, mold and bugs. She said she found scorpions hiding among boxes and roaches crawling on the feeding tube of her son, 5, who requires treatment because he’s not growing. “Every day we were in that house, we were risking his health,” she said.

Balfour Beatty said it promptly and effectively addressed the family’s concerns and apologized for the inconvenience. The family said it took four weeks for the landlord to find them new lodging. The company, they added, did not submit work orders to remedy the mold and insects; while they waited, the company placed the family in a hotel and then temporary base housing, which also had roaches.

At the Texas base, Balfour Beatty has a history of maintenance problems. On any given day in 2015 and 2016, it routinely had hundreds of unfinished maintenance requests open, records show.

Persistent leaks plagued residents and workers alike. Staff logs documented the woes: “roof leak thru vent in son’s room,” “kitchen light fixture leaks when it rains” and “water pouring thru smoke detectors.” Other times, homes sat vacant for months or years, magnets for rodents, reports show. The company said it has demolished some homes and is targeting others in “due course.”

When Balfour Beatty filed maintenance reports to the Air Force, any open, late and unfinished jobs most always disappeared from the records. Quarter after quarter, the Air Force bestowed performance bonuses and, many times, praise on the company.

Balfour Beatty Communities, a unit of British infrastructure conglomerate Balfour Beatty plc <BALF.L>, is among the U.S. military’s largest housing providers. The company runs housing at 21 Air Force bases as well as 34 Army and Navy bases.

It and other private real estate firms run 98% of military base housing in the United States. Many can earn “performance incentive fees” by meeting quarterly and annual goals, such as quickly responding to resident repair requests. The fees, based on reports submitted by the landlord, are a major source of income, generally worth about 2% of the total rent payments from base service families. At Lackland, the rate is 2.25%, records show.

There, from 2009 through 2018, Balfour Beatty received up to $3 million in management incentive fees. The Air Force department in charge of base housing oversight gave the company high grades in reports, applauding its “openness of honest communication.”

In reality, Balfour Beatty was cooking the books, Reuters found in a review of company records and emails, and through interviews with former staffers.

Every quarter, company leaders pressed on-base staff to hit the quotas so Balfour could collect incentive fees. Often, management demanded staff take whatever steps necessary to obtain the bonuses, including using loopholes to improve the numbers.

Former manager Nelson said she relayed pressure from above to her own staff. Email correspondence document some of the exchanges. “It’s not only my ass on the line because of these WO’s [work orders], but my boss AND her boss!!!” Nelson wrote to Anderson and other staff in May 2016. “Close the ones that need to be closed – TODAY! I don’t care what it takes.”

Five months later, she was fired. The company said it dismissed Nelson for poor performance and that, since her departure, one metric of success, occupancy numbers, has improved from 89% to 98%. Yet records show the occupancy rate actually ranged from 95-97% under Nelson’s watch in early 2016.

Nelson said she tried to balance the need to make her bosses happy by securing the incentive fees, and residents happy by making fixes. She said she lacked the manpower or budget to fully do either.

“I was devastated when I was fired,” she said. “I thought everything I was doing was right; yes I was falsifying documents, but I was telling them, ‘You need to fix this.’ ”

FROM ‘MAGICAL’ TO WOEFUL

A former Marine, Nelson took her first job with Balfour Beatty in 2011 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. She found Vandenberg housing in good condition, and said Balfour Beatty provided resources to keep it that way. “It was magical,” she said.

In 2013, a Balfour Beatty vice president asked her to take on Lackland, one of the company’s problem bases. She quickly saw a much different picture in Texas. She found unpaid bills, she said, some more than a year old. Local contractors were wary of working for the company, she said. Employees weren’t always qualified to do the work they were assigned, like replacing toxic freon in air conditioners.

Balfour Beatty struggled to convince families to live on base, Nelson told a friend in an email. One in 10 of the 900 homes on base often sat empty, internal occupancy-rate reports say.

“My intention was to fix it,” Nelson said, leading to long days.

The quest to hit maintenance goals never eased. Lackland had eight to nine maintenance technicians, one for every 100 homes. By 2016, each tech was responsible for finishing 15 work orders a day; reports showed as many as 466 open work orders on a given day.

The number of maintenance workers per home is standard for the industry, but the number of open work orders was high, Balfour Beatty said in a statement. Another company base, the Fort Carson Army base in Colorado, had similar rates of open work orders in 2016, internal company records show.

In December 2014, after facing heat from a regional manager asking about unclosed repair requests, Nelson wrote an email to staff: “ARE YA’LL TRYING TO GET ME FIRED?!!!”

Company emails and reports from the first quarter of 2015 show how the records were massaged.

In March 2015, Balfour Beatty was far from hitting its Lackland goals, finishing only 69% of routine work orders on time, according to an internal company maintenance report obtained by Reuters. To pocket the full bonus, it needed to respond to and complete 95% of requests on-time.

Rick Cunefare, a Balfour Beatty area manager, emailed Nelson and others shortly after the close of the quarter. He wanted better numbers.

“We need to get this completed and ensure response and completion scores are over 95%,” Cunefare told Nelson and the managers at four other Air Force bases, including Vandenberg and three bases now under investigation by the FBI – Tinker, Travis and Fairchild.

Cunefare, who is no longer with Balfour Beatty, declined to comment.

Nelson said she knew changing the scores was wrong but was desperate to keep her job and medical benefits. She had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord for which she was prescribed injections three times a week and routine assessment by neurologists. Her non-verbal, autistic son required costly therapies.

“I had my son’s health to take care of and my own health to take care of,” she said.

Less than two hours after receiving her instructions from Cunefare, Nelson emailed Anderson, the work order clerk, instructing her to change the maintenance records.

“I know you’re really busy, but I’m getting pressure about the Quarterly Maintenance Report and all the results being over 95%,” Nelson wrote. “Will you please take another look at it and make adjustments to ensure we are at 95% response/completion times in all categories.”

After receiving the email, Anderson dived back into the data and changed the completion dates and times to make sure 95% were on time, Anderson told Reuters.

A report submitted by Balfour Beatty to the Air Force states 95.9% of maintenance requests were completed on time during the first quarter of 2015. The Air Force paid the full potential bonus of about $75,000 for the quarter.

The story was similar in other quarters. Earlier, in January 2015, Nelson asked Anderson to change fourth quarter 2014 records, writing, “They need to be 95% or higher.” Later, in June 2015, she told Anderson, “Completion times in April need to be adjusted.”

Nelson was not the first base manager at Lackland to fudge reports, said Anderson, the work order administrator from 2012 until she was let go in October 2016. Anderson said she falsified records every quarter, either under the direction of the community manager or the facility manager, who could not be reached for comment.

Balfour Beatty said it dismissed Anderson for poor performance. Anderson said the company never told her that, telling her instead she was let go for failing to pay rent on the home she was living in at the base. When Reuters first asked the company about the dismissal, it said it was performance and rent-related; later, it changed its response, citing only performance issues.

PUSH FROM THE TOP

Across the company, say former managers, the pressure to meet maintenance goals started with Balfour Beatty’s corporate leadership and worked its way down.

Jennifer Benski was Balfour Beatty’s community manager at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana from 2011 until 2017. She said regional managers and executives scrutinized maintenance data used to determine bonus payouts: the number of open maintenance requests, the number of late requests and other details. She said her staff regularly closed out maintenance requests as complete before they were finished.

“There’s a lot of pressure from upper management to meet those goals, and I guess you could say it doesn’t matter how they’re met,” Benski said.

For the managers of Balfour Beatty’s 21 Air Force bases and two of the company’s Army bases, the pressure often flowed from the company’s Phoenix regional office.

In June 2015, the administrator in charge of quarterly reports in Phoenix emailed instructions to base managers on how to get “a better completion %” on the reports used by the Air Force to award incentive fees. The instructions suggested base managers make use of so-called exceptions.

When a maintenance request cannot be completed on time because of extenuating circumstances, landlords can file an “exception” so the work order doesn’t count against them. Examples include having to order special parts, jobs requiring multiple stages of labor, or cases in which residents requested a repair slot after a deadline.

In June, Reuters and CBS reported that a regional manager, Rebecka Bailey, directed the former manager at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma to use exceptions to help the company meet its goals in late 2016 and early 2017. Following the report, the Air Force suspended all incentive fees to Balfour Beatty pending the outcome of an independent audit. Bailey, who declined an interview request in May, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The Phoenix regional office also told local managers to expect a quarterly report highlighting maintenance numbers they needed to “clean up.”

In October 2015, the Phoenix office sent Nelson one such report, highlighting the response-time metrics that fell short of meeting incentive fee goals. She was asked to “start reviewing/working” them and provide “explanations to increase % complete.”

When base managers hit their goals, the company applauded. “Thank you – well done! All above 95%!!” the Phoenix office wrote Nelson in October 2015.

Work order clerk Anderson said no one at Balfour Beatty or the Air Force inquired to see how the numbers always worked out. “They never questioned me on it,” she said.

WARNING SIGNS

The Air Force had been warned of problems with Balfour Beatty’s maintenance documents.

In a 2012 report, the auditing firm JLL, working for the Air Force Civil Engineering Command, said the Lackland housing office had “difficulty validating … the maintenance data submitted by BBC for its quarterly Performance Incentive Fee.” Balfour Beatty staff had entered incorrect or incomplete data, the auditor told AFCEC, which oversees Air Force landlords.

The Air Force continued to pay Balfour Beatty bonuses. From 2012 through 2013, the company received at least a portion of its incentive fees each quarter, the Air Force said. From the fourth quarter of 2013 through 2018, Balfour Beatty received 100% of the bonus fees.

Had the Air Force conducted a relatively simple analysis, it could have spotted how Balfour Beatty was backdating maintenance records, said several former company employees familiar with the maintenance data system. That system allows users to identify when completion times and dates are edited, along with identifying who changed them.

Instead, JLL and AFCEC were generally positive, praising Balfour Beatty for its work order system and its cooperation with the Air Force, site visit reports from 2012, 2013 and 2016 show. JLL declined comment.

All the while, Nelson said she found herself lying to service families to cover up problems. “I cried in front of residents because they showed me the mold,” she said, “and I couldn’t believe I was in charge of the plight they were going through.”

(Reporting by M.B. Pell. Additional reporting by Joshua Schneyer in New York. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Dallas orders curfew after tornado shreds homes; thousands without power

Dallas orders curfew after tornado shreds homes; thousands without power
(Reuters) – Police declared a curfew on Monday in parts of Dallas where a powerful tornado tore apart homes and flipped cars, leaving tens of thousands without power for a second night.

Three people were reported hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries after the Sunday storm ripped through north Dallas with maximum wind speeds of 140 mph (225 kph), according to the National Weather Service.

Emergency management workers went door to door in areas such as Preston Hollow and Richardson, checking homes without roofs or crushed by fallen trees, tagging structures with orange spray paint.

“#DallasTornado you took my job! my school!” one Twitter user, Monica Badillo, posted, along with images of shattered windows and debris at Primrose School in Preston Hollow, where she said she worked.

The Dallas Police Department (DPD) asked residents to stay indoors between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and told non-residents to stay out of areas where the twister left a miles-long swath of destruction.

“DPD is urging residents to remain vigilant and not enter the impacted areas for their own safety,” the department said, adding it had received reports of looting that had so far turned out to be false.

Dozens of residents were expected to spend the night at a leisure complex turned into a shelter near Love Field Airport, city authorities said.

The winds were powerful enough to cave in a Home Depot <HD.N> do-it-yourself store, leaving a mangled mess of ceiling beams.

The tornado caused traffic chaos, with numerous roads blocked and dozens of stop lights out, transport authorities said.

Fire rescue officials said it would take another day to make a final assessment of the destruction, with less than half of the affected area checked by nightfall.

About 42,000 people were without power by Monday evening, according to utility firm Oncor, which pressed helicopters and drones into its effort to find and fix damaged lines.

Some residents should prepare for a possible multi-day outage as destroyed electric equipment is rebuilt, it added.

Although no fatalities were reported in the Dallas area, severe storms were blamed for at least three deaths in Oklahoma and one in Arkansas, state authorities said.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Gabriella Borter in New York and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Clarence Fernandez)

Texas woman shot by officer had picked up gun after hearing noises, warrant says

FILE PHOTO: Fort Worth Police Department officer Aaron York Dean is seen in a booking photo at the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth, Texas, U.S. October 14, 2019. Tarrant County Jail/Handout via REUTERS.

(Reuters) – A Texas woman was shot dead by a Fort Worth police officer through the window of her home after she heard noises outside late at night and picked up her handgun, the officer’s arrest warrant showed on Tuesday.

Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew around 2:30 am on Saturday when she heard noises in her backyard, according to the warrant for former Fort Worth Police Officer Dean Aaron’s arrest for alleged murder.

The noises were Dean and his partner creeping around the back of her home after they were called to investigate why her front door was open.

Dean resigned on Monday before he was fired for breaching a string of police policies in shooting Jefferson dead with a single shot, according to Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus.

Jefferson’s death brought outraged calls for an investigation into Fort Worth Police, whose officers are accused by her family’s lawyer, Lee Merritt, of fatally shooting seven people in under six months.

“She heard noises coming from outside, and she took her handgun from her purse,” Jefferson’s nephew told police, according to the warrant. His name was redacted from the warrant.

“Jefferson raised her handgun, pointed it toward the window, then Jefferson was shot and fell to the ground,” the warrant said.

Dean’s partner, identified as Officer Darch, said she could see Jefferson when Dean shot her.

“She could only see Jefferson’s face through the window when Officer Dean discharged his weapon,” the warrant said.

The officers did not knock on the front door of the home or announce they were police before Dean fired his weapon, according to Kraus.

“It makes sense she would have a gun if she felt threatened or if there was someone in the backyard,” Kraus said, ending a press conference after eight minutes as he grew emotional talking about the impact of the killing on police morale.

Fort Worth has called in an independent panel of experts to evaluate the police department after the shooting.

Jefferson was killed the same month another former Texas police officer, Amber Guyger, was convicted of murdering Botham Jean, a black man, as he sat in his home eating ice cream.

Jefferson’s family has called for the swift prosecution of Dean, who was arrested on Monday and posted bond overnight.

“#AtatianaJefferson deserved to live in a world where she was safe from brutality playing video games in her home with her nephew,” Merritt tweeted.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)