There is a fascinating article in the Washington Post today about Army Corps of Engineers whistleblower Bunnatine Greenhouse, who was demoted after denouncing a no-bid contract for Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root. Often, in stories like these, the author will more or less stipulate that the subject’s life is “inspiring.” Mrs. Greenhouse’s life truly is inspiring:
Lost in the middle of cotton country in the Louisiana delta at the mid-century, Bunnatine Hayes and her siblings clung to such self-confidence like a life raft. Their parents, Chris and Savannah Hayes, were uneducated and numbingly poor, stuck in a world run by richer, more powerful whites. They raised their children with a ferocious, almost frightening drive.
Bunny’s older sister grew up to be one of the first black professors at Louisiana State University, holding a doctorate in linguistics and literature of Chaucer. An older brother got his doctorate and taught at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Her kid brother, Elvin—Elvin Hayes—grew up to score 27,000 points in the National Basketball Association, lead the Washington Bullets to their 1978 title and be named, at the end of the century, as one of the best 50 athletes to ever play the game.
“My father always taught me to be strong and have dignity, to not have to bow down or have anyone run over you,” he once told a Dallas newspaper, summing up the family creed.
So it stands to reason that Bunny was not only valedictorian of her high school class, not only a magna cum laude graduate of Southern in three years (with a degree in math), but she also went on to get three master’s degrees over the years—in business management from the University of Central Texas, in engineering management from George Washington University and in national resources strategy from the National Defense University at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
She married an Army man, Al Greenhouse. She taught math and, during the lightning-rod year of local integration, came back to teach at her hometown high school. She was the first black teacher the white students had ever seen.
“At the time, I didn’t quite know what to make of a black person who didn’t have a hoe in their hand,” remembers Miriam Lane Davey, a white student of Greenhouse’s that year, 1968. “She had been somewhere else, she was cosmopolitan, she was sophisticated. It really changed my viewpoint. . . . Later on, when I saw Claire Huxtable [the wife on “The Cosby Show”], I thought she was just like Mrs. Greenhouse.”
The interviewer also mentions her (overly-) perfect diction: “she enunciates ‘math’ as mathematics ; ‘again’ as agayn.” I have known older African-American men and women like this in Savannah, people for whom a consistent refusal to use even the commonest contractions was both a badge of honor and a warning, saying, do not trifle with me.
Three years running, she was rated near or at the highest level possible in job reviews. Sample job review comments from those years: “Effective, enthusiastic, energetic, tenacious, selfless . . . ensured the epitome of fairness in Corps contracting . . . has ensured professionalism in the acquisition workforce second to none . . . made the tough decisions that reflect the highest degree of entrepreneurial and critical thought.”…
[Lt. Gen.] Ballard [who hired Mrs. Bunnatine] once witnessed a senior Corps attorney yelling at Greenhouse in a staff meeting with such vitriol that Ballard had to clear the room to lecture the man about civility, he wrote in a 2003 affidavit. He wrote in the same document that he had been told that staff officers routinely made racist comments about Greenhouse and that they were greatly resistant to the idea of more minorities working there. After he retired in 2000, he was told that the senior attorney in question had told a director of human resources that the attorney had pledged to fire her, and he used a vulgarity in describing the woman who prided herself on being refined.
It’s impossible to survey the full story of what happened in subsequent years, because most records have not been made public, and the Corps declines all comment on personnel issues. But it is clear, looking at documents requested from and made available by Greenhouse’s lawyer, veteran whistle-blower attorney Michael Kohn, that her career hit an ugly wall shortly after Ballard left. Whether she failed at the larger aspects of her post or was undermined and removed under false pretenses is up for speculation.
Yeah, me, personally, I’m speculating like mad. In fact, once you read to the end of the article, I think you’ll agree that in the case of a mystery like this, we need to get Scooby and the rest of the gang from the Mystery Machine on the scene. [Cue Dick Cheney in flourescent paint and unconvincing robes: “and I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t…” etc.]
Before the war in Iraq even started, Greenhouse and her superiors were quarreling almost daily.
With the war looming, the agency wanted to award a no-bid “emergency” contract to Kellogg, Brown and Root (a Halliburton subsidiary) that was originally scheduled to last for two years—and up to five years—to provide a range of services in Iraq.
A potential five-year emergency? Worth billions? On a no-bid contract?…
This past summer, when she prepared to testify before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee—the only congressional body that has expressed interest in her charges (though the committee has no oversight power)—Greenhouse’s superiors told her it would not be in her “best interests” to do so.
She thought about that over the weekend. She thought about the lessons her parents imparted to her, a half-century ago, in another time, another place.
Then she testified: “I can unequivocally state that the abuse related to contracts awarded to KBR represents the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career.”
It was stunning in its confrontational nature, its moral conviction, its assurance—and, one might observe, in its full-blown career suicide.
The Corps kicked her out of her job weeks later.
Well, I can only hope that someone gets into big trouble about this, someone who isn’t Mrs. Greenhouse. I have been trying to use the magic of google to discover someplace to which I could sent messages of support to Mrs. Greenhouse, but no luck yet. My first thought was, I have to tell her how much she kicks ass! On reflection, I think I will phrase things more formally. I am sure she would prefer it.