Sounding the Alarm
Advocates seek better protections for State Department contractors who report violations in contingency zones.
It seemed that James Gordon had taken on an impossible task. Hired as director of operations for ArmorGroup North America in August 2007, Gordon was to turn around the company's troubled contract with the State Department to provide security services for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Since awarding the contract to AGNA on March 12, 2007, the State Department has issued nine notices addressing 25 deficiencies. Each demanded corrective action to resolve contractual issues and several involved serious allegations, including a charge that AGNA had deceived the government in its contract proposal.
The deficiencies alone were so significant that State determined they put the security of the embassy in jeopardy. But Gordon, who has filed a whistleblower lawsuit, says the company's culture and practices forced him out of a job and landed AGNA at the center of a high-profile scandal. The company drew media attention in September when the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight released a report saying AGNA employees were forced to participate in lewd activities at drinking parties or risk losing their jobs.
Numerous whistleblowers, Gordon among them, accuse the contractor of a long list of egregious violations, including dangerously understaffing the guard force, hiring third-country nationals who could not speak English and then deceiving the State Department about their language qualifications, allowing employees and managers to frequent brothels known for trafficking women, withholding documents from Congress and knowingly using counterfeit or subpar equipment. The overarching accusation, according to Gordon's lawsuit, is that AGNA engaged in "practices to maximize profit from the contract with reckless disregard for the safety and security of the guard force, the U.S. Embassy and its personnel."
After raising the alarm repeatedly within the company and eventually to the State Department, Gordon says he became "persona non grata" at AGNA. According to Gordon's whistleblower complaint, he essentially was forced out of his position in retaliation for identifying and reporting improper activities and insisting AGNA and its managers correct the contract deficiencies and refrain from making material misstatements, omissions and false claims to Congress and the State Department. He says the company, already facing possible legal action for dismissing other whistleblowers, chose to make life miserable for him rather than fire him directly.
In a final meeting with AGNA President Jerry Hoffman, Gordon says he indicated he had no choice but to resign since he had been stripped of any meaningful responsibilities and excluded from meetings. He says Hoffman did not dispute accusations that AGNA was trying to get him to quit and made no commitment to address the issues or convince him to stay. Instead, Hoffman suggested Gordon submit a formal and "favorable" letter of resignation, and in exchange Hoffman would provide him with a letter of reference.
Gordon and his lawyers, given AGNA's attempts to "disparage and blackball" past whistleblowers after firing them, say he felt he had no choice but to accede to Hoffman's request.
"Departing AGNA has caused me to suffer both financial and personal difficulties; however my personal ethics and standards are not things that I am prepared to dismiss for profit," Gordon said in a legal filing.
According to Gordon's lawyer, Debra Katz, and the Project on Government Oversight, Gordon's experience is commonplace for contractors, particularly security workers in contingency zones. While numerous whistleblower laws protect Defense contractors or contractors who report specific violations, such as those under the False Claims Act, large loopholes still exist. State Department contractors, for example, even those working in war zones, do not have the same whistleblower protections afforded to contractors doing nearly identical work for Defense.
"You have tens of thousands of people working abroad under these contracts who do not have whistleblower protections unless they also raise issues that fall under False Claims," Katz says. "We've been contacted by whistleblowers under all sorts of contracts who, because of the types of issues they blew the whistle on, might not have legal protection. That's one of the challenges of working for government contractors abroad-you may or may not be covered."
This lack of protection and widespread practice of retaliation caused AGNA whistleblowers to eventually turn to POGO, Executive Director Danielle Brian says. With State employees few and far between where these contractors were operating and a lack of awareness of or trust in inspectors general, they had nowhere else to go, she says.
"The atmosphere at the moment is kind of like the Wild West, because they do have the sense that they're pretty far away and no one is really there watching them," she says. Since the scandal, State Department employees have been posted in the camps where contractors are living, but many people still are facing hostile conditions. "There are daily verbal threats. And people perceived to even have been sympathetic to the whistleblowers-whether they are the whistleblowers or not-are being passed up for promotions and being put on bad shifts and demoted," Brian says.
Since the Kabul scandal hit the newspapers and hearing rooms, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has drafted numerous pieces of whistleblower protection legislation, introduced a bill to close the loopholes State Department security contractors are slipping through. The 2009 Non-Federal Employee Whistleblower Protection Act would drastically expand coverage for contractors at any agency who disclose violations of any law, rule or regulation. It would cover "abuse of authority" by contract managers, ensure protection for disclosures made to management, and give whistleblowers access to jury trials and IGs' investigative files.
"Whistleblowers are our first line of defense against waste, fraud and abuse. We've got to do everything possible to protect them," McCaskill says.
In his complaint, Gordon says when it comes to contractors working in the security field, the stakes are even higher for those trying to combat misconduct. "In an industry where good people are required to face extreme risk on a daily basis, it is essential that those companies who disregard the rules be removed as they not only endanger their own staff but also endanger the mission, all in order to increase profit," he says.