Air Force officials seek debarment of body armor maker

Contracting officials at Air Force Materiel Command have taken the unusual step of recommending that the Air Force prohibit Pinnacle Armor Inc., from signing new contracts with the U.S. government.

The recommendation, which comes from the command that oversees many of the service's research and procurement programs, will be reviewed by the Air Force general counsel's office with a final decision not expected for several weeks, a service spokesman said.

The command's decision, submitted to Air Force headquarters last Friday, coincides with public allegations by Air Force and Army officials that the Fresno, Calif.-based company placed a label on its Dragon Skin body armor claiming the product had been certified to meet a certain ballistic testing standard when it had not. The Air Force said it purchased this improperly labeled body armor.

"We're hoping to resolve the issues with the Air Force as soon as possible," a company spokesman said. "We haven't done anything wrong."

Contracting debarments, which extend across the federal government, typically do not last longer than three years. But that would still be a devastating blow for Pinnacle Armor, which has hoped to leverage its Dragon Skin flexible armor to make significant inroads into the lucrative world of military contracting.

If the Air Force debars Pinnacle Armor, the decision would indicate the service has an "open-and-shut case" of contractor negligence, said Keith Ashdown of the Washington-based watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense. But, he added: "Debarment is as likely as there being a lunar eclipse tomorrow. ... It almost never happens."

A total of 5,864 companies are now prohibited from doing business with the federal government, according to the General Services Administration's "Excluded Parties List System" Web site. But only about 10 percent of those originated from the Defense Department, the military services and other defense agencies.

The Air Force last year was notified by the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center that Pinnacle Armor had no body armor certified to meet the National Institute of Justice's Level III standard. But the armor bought by the Air Force was "clearly and falsely marked" with a label purporting that it met Level III standards, according to written June 6 congressional testimony from Douglas Thomas, executive director of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

The Air Force then directed an independent lab to put the Dragon Skin armor through Level III testing, which the vests ultimately failed, Thomas said. Pinnacle Armor's CEO, Murray Neal, told reporters on Capitol Hill last week that the National Institute of Justice had "verbally" informed him to affix the label to the Dragon Skin armor. The armor did not officially receive Level III certification until eight months later.

Last Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the company's claims about Dragon Skin body armor.

Lawmakers, including House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., have called for more tests on Dragon Skin to determine whether or not the flexible armor performs better, as Pinnacle Armor has claimed, than the military's more rigid interceptor body armor now used by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But lawmakers also were extremely upset with the marketing claims by Pinnacle Armor despite the failure of its Dragon Skin vests to pass previous Army tests.

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