Senate Dems hear whistleblower claims of abuse

Contractors claim they were retaliated against for exposing fraud and mismanagement of Iraq projects.

Donald Vance told lawmakers Friday that for 97 days last year, he lost all of his constitutional rights.

The 30-year veteran of the Navy claimed that while imprisoned by the U.S. military in a security compound outside Baghdad in retaliation for blowing the whistle on the contractor he worked for at the time, he was denied basic necessities like food, water and medication, placed in isolation without access to an attorney, and kept awake by heavy metal music drummed into his holding cell.

Vance was one of several whistleblowers who appeared before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee at a hearing Friday to share allegations of retribution, degradation and mistreatment for reporting mismanagement they claim to have witnessed while working in Iraq.

"It's the most staggering amount of fraud and contracting abuse, I believe, in the history of this country," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the committee.

No government officials or contractors appeared before the committee to tell their side of the story. The Defense Department has declined to comment on some of the cases because of pending lawsuits. Several of the contract companies cited no longer exist and another was asked to appear but declined.

Vance said his only crime was telling the FBI that his employer, Shield Group Security, a now-defunct military contractor in Iraq, was selling weapons to terrorists, bribing Iraqi officials and trading weapons and ammunition to U.S. soldiers in exchange for liquor.

"The guards would threaten me and physically assault me," Vance said. "For the first few weeks I was at Camp Cropper I was denied a phone call. No one in my family knew where I was, if I was alive or if I was dead."

Vance told lawmakers that when he was finally released, he was dumped at the Baghdad Airport with $20 and told to fend for himself. He has since filed suit in federal court in Chicago. The Pentagon has declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit.

Former FBI Special Agent Robert Isakson testified that while working for defense contractor Custer Battles, he was asked to write fake invoices and leases that would bilk the government of tens of millions of dollars. Isakson said that when he threatened to turn the company in to the authorities, Custer officials pointed a machine gun at his head, stripped him of his weapon and left him alone on the streets of Baghdad.

Custer officials claim they fired Isakson for incompetence and poor judgment.

Isakson and another former employee filed suit against Custer, eventually obtaining a jury award of $10 million, the largest ever for a whistleblower case not supported by the government and the first civil verdict for Iraq reconstruction fraud.

But last year, Judge T.S. Ellis III of the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia overturned the award, arguing that the defendants had not proven that the Coalition Provisional Authority -- the transitional government that the Bush administration established in Iraq at the start of the war -- was part of the U.S. government. That ruling is now being appealed.

Since Isakson's trial, not a single whistleblower suit has gone to trial, and the Bush administration has failed to join any of the at least a dozen qui tam suits filed by whistleblowers under the federal False Claims Act.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to take notice.

The Senate recently approved an amendment to the fiscal 2008 Defense authorization bill, sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, that would extend whistleblower protections to employees of all Defense contractors. The amendment also shields employees who make disclosures to the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, or any other inspector general.

Other pending whistleblower measures would hold contractors accountable for misuse of federal funds and insulate federal employees from retribution.

The Pentagon has estimated that roughly 126,000 contractors working for 67 federal agencies operate in Iraq, although a count of private security forces has never been established.

"No matter how you feel about the war," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, "it's long past time we rein in these contracting abuses."

The hearing drew a standing-room only crowd, including members of the anti-war group Code Pink. Some wore signs reading, "Protect the Whistleblowers" and "Pull the Plug on Blackwater," a reference to the embattled State Department private security contractor that allegedly killed Iraqi civilians in a firefight. A joint U.S-Iraqi commission is investigating the incident.

Blackwater officials declined an invitation to attend Friday's hearing.