The U.S. armed services should consult with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the conduct of private companies hired to manage military housing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said Thursday.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on military oversight of base housing, Blumenthal said the services should weigh their legal options for bringing charges -- criminal or civil -- against the private contractors for failing to meet contractual obligations to their tenants.
The contractors, he said, provided substandard, unhealthy and inadequate housing and ignored pleas to repair or service the homes.
In the past two years, multiple news reports have surfaced citing squalid conditions at military houses -- from faulty wiring and exposed plumbing to poor water quality, vermin infestations, mold and lead contamination.
And in February, a survey of more than 14,500 residents of base housing found that 56 percent said they had "negative or very negative experiences" with their houses on military installations.
Blumenthal said one of his constituents, who lived at Naval Submarine Base New London, Connecticut, reported mold in their bathroom but were told they just needed to clean it up. Instead, the mold returned and a baby who lived in the home developed pneumonia and later had a stroke.
"What's happening here is criminal. It may not be criminal in some sense ... I'd leave that to the Justice Department. But I respectfully recommend that each of the services ask Justice to be involved, to do an intensive review as to whether there needs to be a criminal investigation or a civil investigation. That's the enforcement these landlords understand."
Military family members present at the hearing applauded Blumenthal's suggestion. Sarah Kline, who lived at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, in home infested with mold and cockroaches, said she supports DOJ involvement.
"That's where I want to see this go. I've had contractors in my house doing shoddy work. I've called the housing office to let them know what was going on and nothing happens," Kline said.
Army, Navy and Air Force officials currently are conducting inspections of 100 percent of their military housing stock in response to the scandal. The Marine Corps is calling individuals to ask if they can inspect the homes, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said, and will send an inspector if invited to do so.
The services also are also finalizing a tenant bill of rights to give more leverage against the housing management companies, including a pathway for withholding their rent payments if their issues aren't fixed.
And they plan to increase staff at the garrison commands to conduct tighter oversight of the companies, as well as "reeducate" commanders on their responsibilities regarding base housing, service officials told the senators.
But whether the cases will end up in court remains to be seen. Army Secretary Mark Esper said his service plans to pursue allegations of fraud and "hold people accountable." Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said audits of the housing programs are underway and if issues are found, the service may consider consulting DOJ. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the service would consult its Office of Special Investigations.
But the latter two answers didn't satisfy Blumenthal.
"Let me point out that the processes for audit and internal investigations take a lot of time. This procedure ought to be expedited. If you care about this issue, let's recognize it for what it is. This problem hasn't just arisen. If it were new and novel, maybe following the normal audit process would make sense," he said.
Among the other concerns raised by senators was the relationship between base housing offices and the private management companies. The services said that they plan to strengthen the power of the housing offices and increase staffing at the federal offices.
But in many cases, the housing office and the contract management firms are collocated in the same buildings, where they spend each day side-by-side. The situation, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, said, makes the two parties appear to be "in cahoots."
"They are not [the military families'] advocates, according to the families. Can I get an Amen?" she said.
"Amen," shouted the families in the audience.
The service secretaries said they will strengthen the commanders' roles in overseeing housing offices and renegotiate contracts with the companies, with support of Congress.
They also promised that troops and their families should see results from the ongoing investigations and repairs within 90 days.
"The Army has to get back in the housing business," Esper said.
Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein said he has lived in base housing for more than 50 years, including his childhood, and he wanted airmen to have safe communities where they don't have to worry about their children's health or about retaliation if they complain about the condition of their housing.
"We are going to have to put our boot on the throat of these contractors," Goldfein said.
--Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.