By Megan Scully
June 7, 2007House Armed Services Committee members Wednesday accused a body armor maker with falsifying information about its product and making unsubstantiated claims that the Army rigged live-fire tests to set the firm's vests up for failure.
During a long hearing that often seemed like a trial, the Fresno, Calif.-based Pinnacle Armor Inc. offered lawmakers no firm evidence to back up its public assertions that Army officials manipulated tests on its Dragon Skin body armor to cover up the vests' true capabilities.
Murray Neal, the Pinnacle Armor chief executive, expressed displeasure over a May 2006 Army test and a "pattern of anti-Dragon Skin misinformation" coming from the military. But Neal was unable to provide specific information on wrongdoing done by either the Army or H.P. White Laboratory Inc., a private ballistic research facility in Maryland that ran the tests.
"They are trying to impugn the integrity of the Army through innuendo," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said of the firm in a brief interview outside the hearing room. Meanwhile, Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, said Neal's testimony was "one of the least professional" he has ever heard before the committee.
The panel's hearing came as the Air Force, which also has tested the Pinnacle Armor vests, has opened a criminal investigation into the firm over allegations that it had placed a label on their Dragon Skin armor improperly stating that it had been certified to a ballistic level it had not.
House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., and other lawmakers, saying they want to ensure U.S. troops have the best protection available, called for more tests to determine which armor works better.
Nonetheless, Skelton seized on written evidence demonstrating that Pinnacle Armor had labeled its armor as certified eight months before the National Institute of Justice, which evaluates the Dragon Skin vests used for law enforcement personnel, actually certified it as meeting a certain law enforcement specification.
"Being a country lawyer, this bothers me a great deal when you mistake dates so far apart," Skelton told reporters after the hearing.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Ross Thompson, the military director of the Army's acquisition office, called the mislabeling a "serious, fraudulent claim."
Neal told reporters he had not heard of the criminal investigation before the hearing, but added that his company is now in talks with the Air Force. He also said the National Institute of Justice had "verbally" informed him to affix the label to the Dragon Skin armor. Neal said he received no written authorization to do so.
Pinnacle Armor has promoted Dragon Skin armor as a more protective and flexible alternative to the rigid interceptor body armor U.S. troops now wear in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army has banned its use, but the families of service members have bought the vests and shipped them overseas.
During the hearing, Neal asserted that the Army had inaccurately concluded that bullets had penetrated the Dragon Skin armor during the tests, when in fact it had only pierced the surface of the vests. But Army officials later played a video of the same test that Neal alluded to in his testimony, demonstrating that at least portions of the fragmented bullet had traveled through the entire vest.
Neal, who was featured in the video, said later that the Army showed the wrong test, and disputed that the bullet had actually penetrated the armor. The video showed a large bullet hole on the surface behind the vest.
Skelton called the hearing just weeks after an NBC News report indicated that the Dragon Skin armor performed better in NBC-sponsored ballistic tests than the interceptor body armor the military now distributes to troops.
Army officials testified Wednesday that the interceptor body armor tested against the Dragon Skin in the NBC test was not produced by any of the six companies that supply the vests to the military, a fact that may have contributed to the interceptor armor's poor showing.
The report "brings NBC's credibility into serious question," said Thompson, who added that the news organization disregarded the Army's own evidence to pursue a "salacious story." Skelton announced at the hearing that NBC News declined an invitation to appear before the committee.
A call to NBC's Washington bureau was not returned at presstime.
Thompson suggested that Pinnacle Armor respond to a recent request for proposals for new body armor. By doing so, the company would get its product re-tested along with other potential suppliers.
Thompson stressed that it would be unfair to other armor makers to test Pinnacle Armor's product separately, as the company has proposed. But, in a gesture to the company, he said the Army would not run the tests at the H.P. White facility.
Pinnacle Armor has not responded to three similar requests for proposals offered by the Army in the last three years, according to the Army. Company representatives did participate in an "industry day" last year -- a chance for firms to interact with the Army -- but did not respond to a subsequent request for information.
By Megan Scully
June 7, 2007