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Whistle-blowers Face Punishment in Iraq; Contractors Say U.S. Military Jailed, Tortured Them for Reporting Fraud
Whistle-blowers face punishment in Iraq
Contractors say U.S. military jailed, tortured them for reporting fraud
One after another, the men and women who have stepped forward to report corruption in the massive effort to rebuild Iraq have been vilified, fired and demoted.
For reporting illegal arms sales, Navy veteran Donald Vance says he was imprisoned by the U.S. military and subjected to harsh interrogation methods.
Also held was colleague Nathan Ertel, who helped Mr. Vance gather evidence documenting the sales, according to a federal lawsuit both have filed in Chicago, alleging they were illegally imprisoned and subjected to physical and mental interrogation tactics "reserved for terrorists and so-called enemy combatants."
Navy Capt. John Fleming, a spokesman for U.S. detention operations in Iraq, confirmed the detentions but said he could provide no details because of the lawsuit.
There were times Mr. Vance began to wish he had just kept his mouth shut, as he huddled on the floor in solitary confinement with that head-banging music blaring dawn to dusk and interrogators yelling the same questions over and over.
He had thought he was doing a noble thing when he started telling the FBI about the guns and the land mines and the rocket-launchers — all of them being sold for cash, no receipts necessary, he said.
He told a federal agent the buyers were Iraqi insurgents, American soldiers, State Department workers, and Iraqi Embassy and ministry employees.
The seller, he said, was the Iraqi-owned company he worked for, Shield Group Security.
"It was a Wal-Mart for guns," he says. "It was all illegal, and everyone knew it."
So Mr. Vance says he blew the whistle, supplying photos and documents and other intelligence to an FBI agent in his hometown of Chicago because he didn't know whom to trust in Iraq.
For his trouble, he says, he got 97 days in Camp Cropper, a U.S. military prison that once held Saddam Hussein, and he was classified a security detainee.
Plagued by corruption
Corruption has long plagued Iraq reconstruction. Congress gave more than $30 billion to rebuild the country, and at least $8.8 billion of it has disappeared, according to a government audit.
Despite these problems, there are no noble outcomes for those who have blown the whistle, according to a review of such cases by The Associated Press. They have been fired or demoted, shunned by colleagues, and denied government support in whistle-blower lawsuits filed against contracting firms.
"The only way we can find out what is going on is for someone to come forward and let us know," said Beth Daley of the Project on Government Oversight, an independent, nonprofit group that investigates corruption. "But when they do, the weight of the government comes down on them. The message is, 'Don't blow the whistle or we'll make your life hell.'"
Robert Isakson filed a whistle-blower suit against Custer Battles in 2004, alleging the contractor — with which he was briefly associated — bilked the U.S. government out of tens of millions of dollars by filing fake invoices and padding other bills for reconstruction work.
He and his co-plaintiff, William Baldwin, a former employee fired by the firm, doggedly pursued the suit for two years. Eventually, a federal jury awarded a $10 million judgment against the now-defunct firm, which had denied all wrongdoing.
It was the first civil verdict for Iraq reconstruction fraud.
But in 2006, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III overturned the jury award.
He said Mr. Isakson and Mr. Baldwin failed to prove that the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-backed occupier of Iraq for 14 months, was part of the U.S. government.
Not a single Iraq whistle-blower suit has gone to trial since.
"It's a sad, heartbreaking comment on the system," said Mr. Isakson, a former FBI agent. "I tried to help the government, and the government didn't seem to care."
No government backing
One way to blow the whistle is to file a "qui tam" lawsuit (taken from the Latin phrase "he who sues for the king, as well as for himself") under the federal False Claims Act, which allows private citizens to sue on the government's behalf.
The government has the option to sign on, with all plaintiffs receiving a percentage of monetary damages, which are tripled in these suits. The Justice Department has joined several such cases and won. They included instances of Medicare and Medicaid overbilling, and padded invoices from domestic contractors.
But the government has not joined any such suits single quit tam suit alleging Iraq reconstruction abuse, estimated in the tens of millions. At least a dozen have been filed since 2004.
"It taints these cases," said attorney Alan Grayson, who filed the Custer Battles suit and several others like it. "If the government won't sign on, then it can't be a very good case — that's the effect it has on judges."
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Most of the lawsuits are brought by former employees of giant firms. Some plaintiffs have testified before members of Congress.
Julie McBride testified last year that, as a "morale, welfare and recreation coordinator" for KBR at Camp Fallujah, she saw the company — a subsidiary of Halliburton — exaggerate costs by double- and triple-counting the number of soldiers who used recreational facilities.
She also said the company took supplies destined for a Super Bowl party for U.S. troops and instead used them to stage a celebration for themselves itself.
"After I voiced my concerns about what I believed to be accounting fraud, Halliburton placed me under guard and kept me in seclusion," she testified. "My property was searched, and I was specifically told that I was not allowed to speak to any member of the U.S. military. I remained under guard until I was flown out of the country."
Halliburton and KBR denied her testimony.
Ms. McBride, who was fired in 2005, also has filed a whistle-blower suit. Last month, a federal judge refused a motion by KBR to dismiss it.
Not among friends
Mr. Vance, the contractor and Navy veteran detained in Iraq after he blew the whistle on his company's weapons sales, says he has stopped talking to the federal government.
According to their suit, Mr. Vance and Mr. Ertel gathered photographs and documents, which Mr. Vance fed to FBI Agent Travis Carlisle for six months beginning in October 2005.
Reached by phone at Chicago's FBI field office, Mr. Carlisle declined to comment. An FBI spokesman also declined.
The Iraqi company has since disbanded, according to the suit.
Mr. Vance said things went terribly wrong in April 2006, when he and Mr. Ertel were stripped of their security passes and confined to the company compound.
Panicking, Mr. Vance said, he called the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The military sent a Special Forces team to rescue them, Mr. Vance said, and the two men showed the soldiers where the weapons caches were stored. At the embassy, the men were questioned and allowed to sleep for a few hours.
"I thought I was among friends," Mr. Vance said.
The men said they were cuffed and hooded and driven to Camp Cropper, where Mr. Ertek Ertel was held for a little more than a month and Mr. Vance for nearly about three months.
And then one day, without explanation, he was released.
"They drove me to Baghdad International Airport and dumped me," he said.
When he got home, he decided to never call the FBI again. He called a lawyer instead.
"There's an unspoken rule in Baghdad," he said. "Don't snitch on people, and don't burn bridges."
For doing both, Mr. Vance said, he paid with 97 days of his life.