Doing the right thing can right an individual’s moral compass. In Donald Sweeney’s case, doing the right thing saved taxpayers $1.5 billion.
Sweeney served for five years as technical manager of an economics work group for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Upper Mississippi River, Illinois Waterway Navigation Feasibility Study. Encompassing five states along a stretch of the Mississippi River from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Cairo, Illinois and including up to $4 billion in improvements, the project is the second largest in Corps history.
Sweeney pioneered the development of a sophisticated economic model, called “ESSENCE,” to assess the massive project’s relative costs and benefits. The result was an innovative, sophisticated computer model that the National Research Council has called “a major advance over previous economic models used by the Corps.”
However, he was removed from management in 1998 after he refused orders to improperly alter the inputs to that model to produce a “favorable” recommendation for immediate large-scale improvements.
In February 2000, Sweeney filed a disclosure with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel detailing violations of law, regulation and the agency’s own guidelines by top commanders in the Corps.
As a consequence of Sweeney’s disclosure and subsequent investigations that validated his concerns, the nation saved the potentially $1.5 billion expense of building unneeded facilities on the Upper Mississippi/Illinois Waterway.
Sweeney’s actions also resulted in a new examination of the Corps planning process by the National Research Council and a larger public debate on the quality of Corps decision-making. His actions also showed the true meaning of public service and the sacrifices one must make to “do the right thing.”