Corps/Levees.org by Jonathan Betz
December 4, 2007
At a luncheon downtown, critics grilled one of the top leaders from the Corps of Engineers.
Major General Don Riley deflected most of the questions that accused the Corps of a cover-up with the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.
It’s part of a campaign to shed light on accusations by a California professor who blasted an oversight board of being in cahoots with the Corps. When it released what was supposed to be a critical study that instead, some say, minimized the Corps’ blame for Katrina’s flooding..
It’s led to a video blasting the Corps and the American Society of Civil Engineers which the group demanded removed from the web last month.
“Until we know exactly what happened here, how can we move forward with total confidence that we're doing is the right thing?” said Sandy Rosenthal of levees.org.
The Corps says it’s investigating the allegations, but adds the professor who’s raising them has not been cooperative.
“We've been telling him all along if you have any information where public safety is at risk, then stop holding it, come tell us right now, give it to us,” said Major General Don Riley of the US Army Corps of Engineers.
But critics worry about the current work being done and say they will continue trying to hold the Corps accountable.
Levees.org – 8/29 Investigation
December 14, 2007
It’s a controversial video produced by students at Newman High School that satirically criticizes the Army Corps of Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers, the group hired to conduct an independent investigation of the Corps.
That video led the ASCE to send the non-profit group, Levees.org, a cease and desist letter ordering them to stop distributing the video on the Internet or face legal action.
But after weeks of adhering to the ASCE’s letter, Levees.org was promised free representation from two law firms in the event of any lawsuit, and got word the ASCE was conducting its own review of how the group participates in investigations. So today, Levees.org founder, Sandy Rosenthal, put the video back on the Internet.
Says Sandy Rosenthal, “Today was a stand of sorts We showed the citizens of New Orleans that the ASCE shall not bully or intimidate a small non-profit and a bunch of high school kids out of exercising our First Amendment rights.”
But Levees.org says their video has greater meaning. The intent is to bring awareness to the need of what they call an 8/29 Investigation, an unbiased and independent study of what went wrong in Katrina and what needs to happen in the future. Right now, conclusions drawn by the Corps and Corps financed independent studies are being used.
Vince Pasquantonio of Levees.org says, “What is so scary is that these findings are currently being used to reconstruct Greater New Orleans’ entire hurricane protection system.”
The scary reminder of Katrina’s devastation had Sandy Rosenthal fighting back tears today, but she says her reaction changes when her thoughts turn to the possible consequences of today’s announcement.
Says Rosenthal, “What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll get sued; then I’ll deal with it.”
David Morgan, the President of the American Society of Engineers sent us the following statement:
“ASCE sent the letter to protect our reputation. Levees.org took the video down and we considered the issue resolved. Since the video has already been widely re-posted by other organizations, moving forward, we feel our time and expertise are best utilized working to help protect the residents of New Orleans from future storms and flooding.”
Levees.org – Corps Emails
December 15, 2008
The citizens’ watchdog group, Levees.org, operates two Internet blogs. And in recent months the group’s founder, Sandy Rosenthal, says she’s noticed increasingly ferocious attacks against her, Levees.org, and its supporters in messages from at least two screen names.
Sandy Rosenthal: “They go after my credibility. They accuse me of making up data.”
Levees.org has strongly criticized the US Army of Corps of Engineers for the levee failures that led to catastrophic flooding after Hurricane Katrina. And Rosenthal says the recent attacks on her blogs have had a recurring theme.
Says Rosenthal, “And that message is that the locals blocked the Corps’ wishes. And thus that the locals are responsible for the flooding.”
A comment sent by someone using the screen name “Overwrought” last Thursday says “Sure, Blame the Corps for the flood wall failures. But who do you blame for your own stupidity for putting your families in such a situation?”
A comment from a user with the screen name “Steveonawlins” on November 18th says, “You have chosen Corps bashing to persuade enough under-informed people that Katrina was a federal flood, then the rest of the nation will pour even more money into the sinkhole of New Orleans.”
Rosenthal was curious. Who could the comments be coming from? So she plugged the screen names into an Internet search to find out.
The first thing she turned up was this: The headquarters of the US Army Information System Command.
Then, an even bigger surprise. She discovered the computer gear some of those messages came from belongs to USACE, the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Says Rosenthal, “This is again the use of taxpayer money for none other than…these are attempts at intimidation. I mean the statements being made are going after me. All I am is a citizen.”
And she even found someone – apparently at the Corps – blasting a blog she wrote saying the Army Corps of Engineers punishes those who speak out against it by refusing to give them contract work.
Rosenthal: “Several supporters gave comments that would support what I’m trying to say. And someone using military equipment, USACE equipment, logged onto my blog and went after those supporters and attacked them.”
How does the Corps respond to all this? With this statement:
“There are over 1,600 people working at the Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District to reduce risk for the Metro New Orleans area. As each day passes, we are reducing risk. This isolated incident involved one person out of 1,600 people that make up the New Orleans District.”
But Rosenthal doesn’t think it’s just one person. She says, “I do believe it’s definitely more than one person at the US Army Corps of Engineers doing this because it’s multiple names and multiple IP addresses all with the exact same message.”
Unanswered in the Army Corps’ response is whether any effort will be made to track down the computer and users who are attacking the Levees.org blogs.
Levees.org is still pressing for a truly independent investigation of why the levees failed.
Levees.org – Follow Up
December 18, 2008
A 4 Follow Up now to our report about computer gear at the Army Corps of Engineers being used to attack the founder and supporters of Levees.org on two of the group’s blogs.
The founder of the citizen’s group found evidence proving Corps computer gear was used for the attacks against her and her group from people using at least two screen names.
One message from someone identifying himself as “overwrought” said, “Sure, blame the Corps for the flood wall failures. But who do you blame for your own stupidity for putting your families in such a situation?”
Now the District Commander of the Corps, Colonel Alvin Lee, has apologized to Sandy Rosenthal in an email that says, “Please accept my apology for the unprofessional comments someone in my district posted to your website. I have reinforced with my entire staff that this was an inappropriate and unacceptable use of our computers and time.”
Rosenthal believes the messages were sent by more than one person.
Army Corps of Engineers – Public Relations
May 13, 2009
WWL-TV has acquired a copy of the Army Corps’ contract with Outreach Process Partners through a public records request asking for documents to show how much the New Orleans District spends on outside private public relations.
The front page reveals the Corps could spend u to 4 and 3/4 million dollars over three years for private PR.
How does the Army Corps of Engineers justify spending 4 and 3/4 million dollars of taxpayer money on a public relations contract? First of all, the Army Corps of Engineers argues it’s not a public relations contract.
Ken Holder, Army Corps Public Relations: “The services that we actually get from them are educational and informative.”
But Levees.org found evidence of something else on Outreach Process Partners’ website. At the center of one page, is a graph showing the number of negative articles, in yellow, hitting a peak of more than 6,500 in March of 2007.
That was before the Corps hired Outreach Process Partners. The bars in purple show what happened after the Corps hired Outreach a year later. The number of negative articles never went above 167 a month in the same period.
And the website says very clearly…”OPP’s media support has been a fundamental part of the transition from typically negative news coverage to more neutral and positive news coverage.”
Sandy Rosenthal, Levees.org, “I look at that and I think this isn’t about helping the Corps communicate with the public. This is about helping the Corps’ image.”
Sandy Rosenthal of Levees.org questioned how the Corps can justify using millions in taxpayer money to improve image.
Sandy Rosenthal, Levees.org, “Looks to me like selling the people of this area on how good a job the Corps is doing. We would rather know exactly what they’re doing, not be sold an idea of what they’re doing.”
We asked Ken Holder, Army Corps Public Relations, “Doesn’t it look like they’re bragging about improving image?”
Holder replied, “Well I think, I don’t think anybody would have any disagreement that that’s what was on their website.”
But Ken Holder says the Corps did not hire Outreach to improve image and that’s not what they’re doing.
Ken Holder, Army Corps Public Relations, “That’s not something the government should be doing. It’s not something we do, I know that.”
Within hours of the email blast Rosenthal sent to Levees.org showing them the website, Outreach Process Partners took down the graph.
Ken Holder, Army Corps Public Relations, “I had them pull the website down and look at all of the pages and review what they are actually doing.”
Stacy Mendoza, Outreach Process Partners, “I want to apologize personally. I understand the confusion we’ve created over our role which is a support role to the Army Corps. And I’m sorry that there is that confusion.”
Stacy Mendoza of Outreach Process Partners says the graph showing that she calls a “case study” was “misguided”, too boastful”, a “mistake”.
She says the Corps hired her firm to provide educational, informational support, help set up meetings, provide materials for meetings, and get public feedback.
Stacy Mendoza, “The more we’re able to tell our messages to the public and provide updates on projects; I feel that trust is repaired, bit by bit. Rebuilding public trust.”
Ken Holder says the Corps needs the additional support because this area’s 14.6 billion dollar civil works project is one of the biggest ever.
Much larger than the Corps’ original public affairs staff of 4 people could handle.
Stacy Mendoza says her firm is helping the Corps with three public meetings this week.
Army Corps of Engineers PR Follow-Up by Dennis Woltering
June 17, 2009
New evidence that government- owned computers at the Army Corps of Engineers office here in New Orleans are being used to verbally attack critics of the Corps comes in an affidavit from the former editor in chief of nola.com.
Jan Donley, who was laid off this past February, tells us via satellite from Texas that in late 2006, he started noticing people presenting themselves as ordinary citizens defending the Corps very "energetically."
“What stuck out thought was the wording of the comments, in may ways mirroring the news releases from the Corps of Engineers,” said Donley.
This past December, Eeyewitness News reported that levees.org founder ,Sandy Rosenthal,found a recurring theme in attacks against her and her supporters on her internet blogs.
“And that message is that the locals blocked the Corps wishes and thus that the locals are responsible for the flooding,” said Rosenthal.
Someone with the user name ""overwrought" wrote ..."Sure, blame the corps for the floodwall failures. But who do you blame for your own stupidity for putting your families in such a situation?"
And with the screen name "Stevonawlins" on November 18th said, "You have chosen Corps-bashing to persuade enough under-informed people that Katrina was a federal flood, then the rest of the nation will pour even more money into the sinkhole of New Orleans."
“These commenters tried to discredit people,” said Rosenthal.
And when she investigated, she discovered the comments were coming from users at the internet provider address of the Army Corps offices here in New Orleans. She blamed the Corps for a strategy of going after critics.
“In the process of trying to obscure the facts of the New Orleans flooding, one of their tactics was verbal abuse,” Rosenthal said.
The Corps denied any such strategy saying, "This isolated incident involved one person out of 1,600 people that make up the New Orleans district."
At nola.com, Jan Donley noticed some of the users blasting Corps critics became "verbally abusive."
“And they would go out of their way to target particular users who maybe did a better job in criticizing the Corps,” Donley said.
And Donley said he also noticed these users who attacked corps critics were using Army Corps equipment. He made spread sheet of the activity over 6 weeks at the end of December and beginning of January.
“During that 6 week period, there were nearly 700 comments, from Corps IP’s; the same group of people I had been watching for over 2 years. So this was not an isolated incident,” she said.
The Center for Media and Democracy which focuses on focuses on public relations tactics, says if this is a strategy, it's not uncommon.
“In the PR world, it’s known as the 3rd party tactic. And there have been a lot of very similar deceptive online communications that use that,” Diane Farsetta said.
But the Army Corps denies any strategy or policy like that at all.
“This is not some plan where we would go out and ask employees to do this…no,” Ken Holder, USACE, said.
Ken Holder says employees are allowed to use computers to read blogs and make comments during their breaks.
“You certainly don’t check your citizenship rights at the door. Even using taxpayer funded equipment? You would be able to use, as I mentioned earlier, you would be able to use your computer during the break times that you had,” Holder said.
But he says Corps employees are not allowed to make abusive comments of any kind.
Corps Web Criticism Follow-up
August 4, 2009
A follow up now to a “Four Investigates” report about the Corps of Engineers and alleged intimidation by its employees in online web forums.
Now Senator Mary Landrieu is asking the Pentagon to launch an investigation.
Dennis Woltering’s stories raised questions by the group levees.org about what it called “a coordinated abuse” of public forums on web sites, including nola.com.
In an affidavit, a former nola.com editor said several postings came from computers registered to the Corps’ New Orleans office, defending the Corps, or criticizing those who said negative things about it.
Senator Landrieu mentions that affidavit in her letter, and asks the Pentagon’s Inspector General to launch an investigation immediately.
In the past, the Corps has said its employees are not allowed to make any abusive comments via computer, and denied any coordinated effort to post online comments.