House panel probes charges of human trafficking in Iraq embassy project

A pair of whistleblowers alleged Thursday that the contractor selected to build the U.S. embassy in Iraq "kidnapped" foreign nationals to work on the $592 million construction project, luring low-wage laborers into a war zone under false promises that they would be working at hotels in Dubai.

John Owens and Rory Mayberry, both former employees of First Kuwaiti Trading & Contracting Co., told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that workers from the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Sierra Leone were tricked into boarding planes to Baghdad and then forced to work and live in squalid -- and often dangerous -- conditions.

The allegations have been vigorously disputed by both First Kuwaiti and the State Department inspector general, who investigated the claims.

"Let me spell it out clearly. I believe these men were kidnapped by First Kuwaiti to work on the U.S. Embassy," said Mayberry, who worked for the contractor for less than a week providing emergency medical services to construction workers. "They had no passports because they were confiscated at the Kuwait Airport. When the airplane touched down at Baghdad Airport, they were loaded into buses and taken away. Later, I found out they were smuggled into the Green Zone. They had no IDs, no passports, nothing."

Owens said he witnessed workers at the job site being physically and verbally abused by First Kuwaiti managers who threatened to dock their salary if they were five minutes late or found sitting down at work. And although they were contractually obligated to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, if workers wanted a new pair of shoes or gloves, they were told to "do with what you have," Owens claimed.

Mayberry, meanwhile, said he found men working on 30-foot-high scaffolds, with no safety harnesses and under the influence of pain killers.

"Conditions were deplorable, beyond what even a working man should tolerate," said Owens, who served as a general foreman for eight months -- from November 2005 through June 2006. "Foreign workers were packed in trailers tight. There was insufficient equipment and basic needs -- stuff like shoes and gloves."

Wadih El Absi, managing director of First Kuwaiti, was invited to testify before the committee, but the company instead submitted a written statement, claiming the human trafficking allegations were unsubstantiated and made "by a few disgruntled former workers."

The company claimed that the majority of its employees are hired through recruiting agencies and that contracts with laborers have "State of Iraq" clearly written on them. The Justice Department now is investigating some of the recruiting firms reportedly used by First Kuwaiti.

"The implication that First Kuwaiti laborers are brought into Iraq against their will and are kept there against their will is absolutely ludicrous," the statement read.

Howard Krongard, the State Department's inspector general, visited the embassy site last December. His assessment supported First Kuwaiti's claims. The IG found that no workers had been mistreated, living quarters were above average and medical facilities were clean and well organized. Half of the workers interviewed by the IG staff carried their passports, while the other half said they had asked First Kuwaiti to maintain the documents for security and convenience.

The IG's report concluded that the new embassy compound "rated in the top third with above average quality of life conditions" and that the trafficking violations were unfounded.

Democrats on the committee noted that the IG did not interview either Owens or Mayberry and that First Kuwaiti was allowed to select the employees that were interviewed. Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said the State Department may have reason to whitewash the allegations.

"We have learned during the course of our investigation that a number of officials in our own State Department may have looked the other way when confronted with these disturbing and 'inconvenient' allegations," Tierney said.

Republicans, however, turned the focus on the whistleblowers. Rep. Darrell Issa of California said Owens filed a lawsuit against First Kuwaiti and that Mayberry is a "professional whistleblower," alleging previous wrongdoing by another former employer, KBR of Houston. At the direction of his attorney, Owens declined to confirm the existence of any lawsuit against First Kuwaiti.

Committee members also sparred over conditions at a temporary guard camp located adjacent to the embassy. According to State Department cables, first reported on July 5 in The Washington Post, when employees turned kitchen equipment on for the first time in May, they received electrical shocks and discovered wires had melted. Embassy officials shut down the site, citing "life safety issues" and "potential fire hazards."

In a follow-up cable, State Department officials in Washington dismissed the concerns as without merit and blamed the problems on the equipment that had been installed by KBR, which was responsible for providing meals to embassy workers. "KBR created the problems, and [is] now trying to put this matter on the construction of the camp," the cable said.

Karl Demming, who oversees KBR's engineering and construction work in Iraq, told the committee that the problem may have been counterfeit wiring -- when the wire size printed on the insulation actually has smaller, low-capacity conductors -- installed by First Kuwaiti.

State Department officials said the wiring problems were routine "punch list" items common to virtually every building project and had no impact on the separate embassy compound. But under questioning by Tierney, Demming conceded that the electrical problems with the guard base "may be reason for concern" at the embassy.

The 24-building compound will be the largest embassy in the world, occupying more acreage than the Vatican and amounting to roughly two thirds the size of the National Mall in Washington. The facility, the details of which have been a closely guarded secret, will reportedly mirror a self-sustaining city, featuring six apartment buildings, fast food restaurants, a swimming pool and beauty salon.

Despite the controversies, the project is scheduled to be completed in September on time and under budget -- a rarity with Iraq reconstruction projects.

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