When Kate Needham received five subpoenas from attorneys representing Balfour Beatty Communities, her heart sank.
The company, which manages roughly 43,000 homes for the Department of Defense, demanded copies of all correspondence between her organization, Armed Forces Housing Advocates, and anyone with whom AFHA had discussed Balfour Beatty -- part of the discovery process in lawsuits brought against the company by 20 military families who allege they were harmed by the housing conditions in their Balfour Beatty-built homes.
The subpoenas not only asked for all emails, texts, transcripts, recordings, minutes, agendas or any other items with the 20 families or pertaining to Balfour Beatty, they wanted all correspondence with anyone who had ever asked about the company, as well as anyone who spoke with AFHA about housing at Fort Bliss or Tinker, Sheppard and Lackland Air Force bases, including the media and other third parties.
"They weren't just asking for the family's information who was suing them. They were asking for all communications with any third party right off the bat," said Needham, AFHA's executive director. "Privacy has always been our priority. Families have come to us, and we didn't want that confidence to be betrayed."
The request, according to Needham, would have financially sunk the all-volunteer group, which operates on thin margins. AFHA has legal representation, thanks to "generous donors" and "generous attorneys," according to Needham.
But she and AFHA Chairwoman Rachel Christian were "prepared to whip out their credit cards" to ensure that the advocacy organization could fight the request and remain operable. It also could have imperiled their work helping families combat substandard housing as some of the tips they receive and other correspondence meant to be anonymous would have been swept up in the subpoena.
Military.com contacted AFHA in March after hearing about the subpoenas, but did not receive a response. At the time the organization was under a gag-order not to discuss the details of legal proceedings.
AFHA officials issued a press release April 19, after the gag order was lifted, saying the subpoenas appeared to be "designed to harass AFHA, drain their resources and distract from their core mission of protecting military families from abusive landlords."
That same day, Military.com contacted the company requesting comment on the accusations. Balfour Beatty officials said such subpoenas are "customary in litigation."
"As part of the discovery process, the plaintiffs testified that AFHA has relevant information related to their claims. ... A subpoena was issued requiring AFHA to share that information," the company said in a statement. "AFHA's lawyer has not objected to the scope of the subpoena or said that a response would be unduly burdensome."
Earlier this month, Balfour Beatty's attorneys withdrew the subpoenas.
"We had asked for an extension, and that date was coming up. Their legal team told our legal team they were withdrawing them without explanation," Needham said in an interview Wednesday.
Balfour Beatty provides housing to 150,000 families in 26 states, one of several private companies that manage housing for the Defense Department under public-private partnership agreements.
Systemic issues with on-base housing came to light following a series of news reports by Reuters in 2018 that found poor housing conditions including mold, vermin and pest infestations, shoddy maintenance and dangerous wiring in hundreds of homes.
The reports and subsequent congressional hearings led to widespread inspections and attempts at reform, to include introduction of a tenant bill of rights designed to give military families more leverage in negotiating with the private management companies and ensuring better oversight by the military services.
Balfour Beatty and other companies have also been the target of lawsuits by military families over poor housing conditions. Balfour Beatty itself was the target of a congressional investigation that found the company's management practices "put military families' health and safety at risk," according to a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report published last year.
The Justice Department also ordered the company to pay $65.4 million in fines and restitution in 2021 after being found guilty of fraud, having manipulated maintenance records from 2013 to 2019 to obtain performance bonuses as a housing management contractor.
In a statement provided to Military.com, Balfour Beatty executives said the company is "totally committed to the health, safety and well-being of our residents."
"We continue to invest in people and resources to offer the best possible living experience for the men and women who serve our country," officials wrote.
Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., continues to press the company to make improvements based on conditions at Fort Gordon, Georgia, after families say they still struggle with mold and other maintenance issues in their homes.
"I will sustain my oversight to hold Balfour Beatty accountable and ensure they provide only safe, healthy housing for service members and their families," Ossoff said in a hearing April 18.
In early April, the Government Accountability Office said that the DoD continues to struggle to provide suitable, well-maintained housing for service members and their families, and it urged the department to institute a formal dispute resolution process for residents.
The department, according to the GAO, still has work to do to improve oversight, hold the companies accountable and manage inspections.
"Although each of the military departments is conducting these inspections as required, DoD has not developed clear or consistent inspection standards and the military departments have not provided adequate inspector training," GAO analysts wrote.
"By addressing these implementation weaknesses, DoD could enable personnel to more effectively perform their duties, reduce residents' confusion and frustration, and more fully meet the congressional intent of improving the privatized housing program," they said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.