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Sources: Contractor for military committed serious violations

  • Story Highlights
  • Pentagon sources: Contractor KBR's inspections of wiring at U.S. bases inadequate
  • Findings stem from January electrocution of U.S. soldier in Baghdad
  • Sources: Contractor told that efforts to ensure soldiers' safety must be improved
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By Abbie Boudreau and Scott Bronstein
CNN Special Investigations Unit
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A contractor providing services to the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan has committed serious violations of its contract, mainly by conducting inadequate inspections of electrical wiring and grounding at American bases, according to Pentagon sources.

Ryan Maseth, a 24-year-old Green Beret, died in his shower January 2.

Ryan Maseth, a 24-year-old Green Beret, died in his shower January 2.

The Pentagon findings on Houston, Texas-based KBR stem from the widely publicized death of Sgt. Ryan Maseth, a highly decorated 24-year-old Green Beret from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Maseth was electrocuted while taking a shower at his base in Baghdad.

His January 2 death was just one of many deaths now believed to be linked to shoddy electrical work done at U.S. bases, managed by U.S. contractors, according to Pentagon sources.

The Pentagon's Defense Contract Management Agency recently gave KBR a "Level III Corrective Action Request" -- issued only when a contractor is found in "serious noncompliance" and just one step below the possibility of suspending or terminating a contract, Pentagon officials said.

In KBR's case, it means that the contractor's inspections and efforts to ensure electrical safety for troops have been unacceptable, and must be significantly improved, Pentagon sources told CNN.

Just after Maseth's electrocution, Pentagon officials estimated that about a dozen troops had been electrocuted in Iraq. But Pentagon officials now say at least 18 troops have been electrocuted since 2003 -- many due to faulty wiring and improper grounding.

The number could be higher than that when Afghanistan is included, say congressional sources.

"I can't make sense around Ryan's death, that he died like that, that he was so trained. So highly trained to survive," said Maseth's mother, Cheryl Harris, in an interview earlier this year. "It just feels so surreal. It's so painful to think about how he died."

Largely because of Harris' efforts to demand answers about her son's death, the U.S. Senate and House have held oversight hearings in recent months in hopes of finding out how the electrocutions occurred.

"The fact that there's an assessment made at this level -- a level three -- which is very serious, indicates to me, and to a lot of people, how serious this problem is," said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pennsylvania.

"It's really a question in the end about justice. The only way we can have justice in a case like this for the families and for the American people is to have serious accountability. That has not happened yet. There's still a lot of parties here that have not been held to account for what happened here," Casey said.

Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group, said accountability is needed, but difficult to come by when KBR's contract is so integral to the Iraq war.

"The problem, of course, is it's such a big contract," Brian said. "The government's in a place -- the Pentagon's in a place where they say, 'How can we suspend KBR? They're sort of running the show over there.' "

"It's so big -- it's too big to cancel that contract or suspend them from future contracts," she added.

Brian said the action against KBR amounts to "nothing more than a slap on the wrist" for a company with an estimated $24 billion contract for its work in Iraq. She pointed out that KBR's government contract is paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

"I think the public should demand that the government generally hold its contractors accountable, and remind the government this is our money -- we don't want our money spent this way," Brian said. "We want to make sure that if our money is being used to hire contractors in Iraq, that it is being spent well and that it's protecting our troops."

Since CNN first reported the story about Maseth's death last spring, the network has repeatedly asked the Pentagon and its contract agency for an interview. They have never agreed to an interview to answer questions about Maseth's death or other similar cases.

KBR declined comment for this story, but earlier told CNN it found no link between its work and the reported electrocutions.

The company's contract in Iraq is vast and encompasses numerous responsibilities that vary from one location to another, ranging from the upkeep of U.S. bases there to providing most of the basic services on the bases. All of the 18 electrocutions occurred in different places and under different circumstances.

There are at least two lawsuits now against KBR, including one by Maseth's family, and they are trying to determine precisely what role, if any, KBR played in the specific circumstances that led to those deaths.

"I want KBR to be exposed. More than anything, I just want them to step up and take care of what they're being paid to take care of, and to do the work that they are contracted to do. More than anything, let's put the security and the safety of our troops first," Harris said. Video Watch Maseth's mother discuss the case »

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Pentagon officials told CNN that KBR's initial corrective efforts have not been sufficient. KBR will now have to come up with a corrective plan that is acceptable to the Pentagon. The company could still receive fines or penalties.

So far, the company has not been held responsible in any of the deaths. The company has denied liability in the lawsuits.

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