U.S. business turned blind eye to wild behavior on Iraq base

Wednesday, May 3, 2017|8:58 a.m.

WASHINGTON– The 2 American investigators felt a sense of foreboding that Sunday as they visited an emergency situation meeting with their manager on the Iraqi air base. But they didn’t expect to be surrounded by armed guards, deactivated, detained against their will– and fired without description.

It was March 12– less than 2 months ago. Robert Cole and Kristie King were in Iraq working as private investigators for Sallyport Global, a U.S. company that was paid nearly $700 million in federal agreements to secure Balad Air Base, home to a squadron of F-16 fighter jets as part of the U.S.-led union to wipe out the Islamic State.

Cole and King had actually invested more than a year together in Iraq examining all way of misconduct at Balad and beyond.

They ‘d uncovered proof that Sallyport employees were associated with sex trafficking, they stated. Staff on base regularly flew in smuggled alcohol in such high volumes that an aircraft when seesawed on the tarmac under the weight. Rogue militia took massive generators off the base using flatbed trucks and a 60-foot crane, driving previous Sallyport security guards.

Supervisors repeatedly shut down Cole and King’s examinations and failed to report their findings to the United States federal government that was bearing the expense, the private investigators stated.

Right before they were fired, Cole and King had actually opened an investigation into allegations of timesheet scams amongst Sallyport employees. In a call with Sallyport lawyers, they stated, they were advised to keep 2 sets of books about potential criminal offenses and contract offenses.

“One for the federal government to see and one for the government not to see,” King told The Associated Press.

In a declaration to the AP, Sallyport said it follows all contracting rules at the base, the home of the F-16s that are a key to the battle versus the Islamic State.

“Sallyport has a strong record of providing security and life support services in challenging battle zone like Iraq and plays a major however unheralded role in the war against ISIS,” Chief Operating Officer Matt Stuckart wrote. “The company takes any tip of misbehavior at Balad extremely seriously.”

More than 150 documents gotten by AP, in addition to interviews with more than a half-dozen previous or current Sallyport employees, show how a specialist ran amok after being worked with for rewarding and necessary battle assistance operations. The investigators and other witnesses describe severe security breaches and prohibited plans that went unreported till the federal government asked about them.

The point behind needing contractors to employ their own private investigators was to limit the waste and corruption that has marred federal security contracting going back to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Pentagon’s own auditors, who were often on the base 50 miles north of Baghdad, were not told of the serious problems till early this year, a potential violation of law. The Pentagon auditors’ reports, obtained by the AP, information lots of more small violations. That space illustrates the limitations of U.S. oversight for billions of dollars in agreements run by companies that have capitalized the battle to safeguard Americans from extremism.

The Defense Department declined to comment.

The early morning of March 12, King had actually gone to church and was still carrying her Bible when she and Cole strolled into the workplace foyer for the meeting with in charge. To their awe, they were instantly surrounded by armed security guards and required to turn over the 9 mm handguns they both routinely continued the task.

In charge, David Saffold, notified them they were being fired however wouldn’t state why.

“We knew excessive,” King informed AP in an interview at her house in Amarillo, Texas. “They wish to cover it up and carry on since it’s a substantial quantity of loan.”

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BODYGUARD OR TERRORIST?

In 2004, Rob Cole was a retired California law enforcement officers and licensed private investigator when he chose to go to Iraq for a series of contracting jobs. Like many U.S. contractors operating in harmful areas, he went due to the fact that the work paid a lot more than he might make back house.

Americans have been at Balad on and off considering that 2003. Sallyport’s parent business, Michael Baker International, announced in 2014 its subsidiaries had actually been awarded $838 million for deal with the base.

Cole’s first task at Balad was interrupted in June 2014, a month after he arrived, when the Islamic State group started sweeping throughout Iraq and Syria. The extremists eventually made it to evictions of Balad, which was evacuated.

When the Americans went back, they found a looted base mainly under the control of Iranian-backed Shiite militias that were supporting the Iraqi federal government, according to previous staff members. A former senior manager informed the AP that Sallyport reached an understanding with the militias that they would not go into the flight and residential areas. He decreased to be called since he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter and didn’t want to be blacklisted from future tasks.

Cole, now 62, returned to Balad in May 2015, as Sallyport was getting ready for the arrival of American F-16s sold to the Iraqi government. Sallyport’s mission, along with its moms and dad business, was to keep the base operating efficiently, train the Iraqis, and most significantly maintain security on the base, where thousands of Iraqis and numerous specialists work.

The federal agreement needed examinations into possible crimes and violations involving the business’s work at Balad. That was Cole and King’s project.

“They wanted somebody to be qualified enough to process an examination, if there was a criminal activity, or if somebody turned up dead,” King stated. “The way it was put to me: If someone turned up with a knife in their back, who are you going to call?”

From the start, it was clear that much was awry on the base. In spite of the seriousness of battling IS, the delivery of the F-16s had been delayed by months amidst security issues. It would be catastrophic if IS seized the base and its multimillion-dollar jets.

On July 13, 2015, four F-16s flew in from Arizona, the very first of 36 fighter jets that the U.S. planned to deliver.

Brett McGurk, then the U.S. deputy envoy for the worldwide union versus IS, hailed the arrival in a tweet.

“After years of preparation & & training in the United States, Iraqi pilots today landed the 1st squadron of Iraqi F16s in #Iraq,” he composed.

The very first security breach came in less than 24 hours: A long black skid mark on the tarmac was reported. It stopped about 45 lawns from the nose of one of the fighter jets. A truck had raked through a rope barrier in the “no-go” zone, where deadly force is authorized to protect the planes. For more than 10 minutes, no one even reacted as the automobile repelled, according to reports citing security video.

That ended up not to be a terrorist. However Cole states the out-of-control truck was a precursor. He kept in mind the lax defense for the F-16s in his report and forwarded it to the chief of security, Steve Asher. Under the requirements of the contract, Cole’s report ought to have then made its way to the Pentagon. However he says Asher kept a cover on the event.

3 months later on, in October 2015, Cole reported another security breach, the theft of a Toyota SUV that Sallyport had actually assigned to bodyguards to drive VIPs around the base. Cole eventually uncovered a plot by 3 Iraqi Sallyport personnel working with a hazardous Iran-backed militia, called Kataib Imam Ali.

The Shiite militia was a continuous headache, politically connected and running outside the law, with sidelines in theft and gunrunning. It has ties to the leader of the umbrella militia Popular Mobilization Forces, which is on the U.S. list of designated terrorists.

To Cole’s astonishment, the prime suspect threatened to join the militia throughout his interrogation. He was a Sallyport bodyguard. In reality, the investigators later on discovered an image of him on his Facebook page, worn black militia garb and a patch suggesting his allegiance to the group.

He is “seen by the Investigations System as a hard-core hire to end up being a terrorist who presents a serious danger to all workers on this base,” Cole wrote in another report.

The Toyota was recovered within a few days, however Cole was ordered off the case. In an interview with AP, the former senior manager defended the business’s order, saying settlements with the militias were highly sensitive and had to be handled with Iraqi cooperation. Still, the suspect was expected to be banned from the base, and Cole later saw the guy walking around freely.

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GUMMY BEARS SOAKED IN VODKA

The longer Cole was on the base, the more he believed that management was turning a blind eye to criminal activity.

On the books, Balad is a dry base, where alcohol is limited. However in reality the alcohol was everywhere and everyone knew it. Finding out how it arrived resulted in more uncomfortable questions.

A Sallyport staff member who operated in the air terminal reported in late 2015 that colleagues were associated with a smuggling plan. They were bringing in cases and cases of water bottles filled with alcohol that they ‘d sneaked onto airplanes flying in from Baghdad.

According to investigative files and people who watched the smuggling in action, 3 empty luggages would routinely be filled onto a flight to Baghdad. Each time, the bags returned with plastic water bottles filled with alcohol. When they were unloaded, the bags were not browsed but taken straight outside to be picked up– a severe security risk in a battle zone.

“You could be putting a bomb therein,” said one previous employee who witnessed the smuggling. “You have actually got individuals simply going rogue.” He spoke only on condition of privacy since he didn’t wish to threaten his brand-new job with a various abroad specialist.

Steve Anderson, who worked on flight logistics, says he was pressed to approve fabricated flight manifests that omitted passenger names and falsified the weight of cargo to cover for the alcohol smuggling and other violations– a violation of worldwide flight policies. The planes were getting so weighed down he was stressed over flight security.

“They were playing Russian live roulette with the travelers’ lives– consisting of mine,” Anderson said.

Once, he enjoyed an aircraft that was being unloaded suggestion nose-forward on its wheels onto the tarmac since it was so overloaded.

“I might hear individuals inside the aircraft screaming. I never seen anything like that in my whole life,” he recalled. “It was like a seesaw.”

Then out came the telltale bags that he watched get shepherded around security.

When Anderson aired his concerns to management and chose not to sign the falsified manifests, his manager said he didn’t want to hear about any more issues.

“He said, ‘If you don’t like the job that you’re doing maybe you ought to discover elsewhere to work.'”

Anderson went on a medical leave and was informed his position had been filled when he looked for to return.

Rumors of the alcohol smuggling reached Cole and King individually. Informants informed them that flight line staff, who directed aircrafts on the runways and managed freight, were showing up intoxicated. In one instance they had passed around a bowlful of gummy bears soaked in vodka.

The detectives got a tip that the bootleggers were working out of 2 hotels in Baghdad.

Believing they were undercover, King and an Iraqi detective on the group went to one of the hotels, the al-Burhan, five minutes from Baghdad’s airport. She said informants informed them the smuggling was run by the hotel supervisor and a number of Sallyport staff members.

During their interviews, they discovered a much more worrying plan.

The hotel had actually been running a prostitution ring, and Sallyport staff members were amongst the consumers, informants stated. 4 Ethiopian females who had actually worked as prostitutes at the hotel were later on hired in housekeeping by Sallyport, and were still sending out money back to a pimp in the al Burhan.

The proof recommended, the private investigators informed the AP, that Sallyport managers had either knowingly or unwittingly abetted human trafficking involving vulnerable female immigrants in a battle zone, a discovery the company would be needed to report to the U.S. government under federal law.

In the hotel’s courtyard, a prime smuggling suspect, who was a Sallyport staff member, angrily confronted King and said that a senior supervisor at the head office in Virginia, Roy Hernandez, had tipped him off about the investigation.

On Feb. 15, 2016, Cole and King were purchased by Sallyport’s Balad program manager, Kim Poole, to close down the examinations into both the bootlegging and the prostitution on Hernandez’s directions, according to the private investigators.

The following day, Sallyport sent out an e-mail to staff warning that they may be examined over trafficking and noting that they were required to report violations.

But Stuckart says the prostitution accusations were not corroborated.

“It is absurd to recommend that the business would close down a questions into a matter of such gravity,” he stated.

More than a year later, 2 of the Ethiopian females were still dealing with the base, Cole stated, and the alcohol smuggling had drawn back up, inning accordance with a report obtained by AP dated May 28, 2016.

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“IT WAS ASTONISHING”

Late in 2015, it became clear that little had actually changed after the earlier security breaches. On Nov. 15, Cole got a report that 3 big generators had actually been taken from the base for an overall loss of $1 million.

Inning accordance with security videos, prior to 2 a.m., militia had owned two flatbed trucks and a crane onto the base, driving best past the security gate. Cole estimates the crane, when extended, was at least 60 feet tall. After successfully filling the 3 generators and partly covering them with burlap, the militia drove off the base undisputed. The episode lasted three hours.

Cole said they passed within about ten feet of the Sallyport security personnel force. “Nobody reported anything. It was a catastrophe and it was covered up. That is definitely concealed,” he said. “What if the intent was not to steal but to commit a terrorist act?”

According to Sallyport’s Stuckart, the theft took place when the Iraqi base commander “given local militia members access to the base” and stated the generators weren’t found in his business’s security zone. “Sallyport had no authority to keep these militia members from taking the generators.”

It sought that occurrence that a Defense Department auditor, who usually concerned himself with bin tagging, garbage collection and the accounting minutiae of base life, started asking questions.

Cole and King had actually kept all their reports in an investigative log. They had likewise flagged the important cases to management and they had assumed that the company informed the government.

It ended up being clear from the auditor’s question that he understood nothing about it. “When we lastly understood that they were hiding all the things from the U.S. government, it was mind-blowing,” stated King.

Already, clouds were looming for Cole and King. They had actually started yet another examination into timesheet fraud after getting a pointer that Sallyport workers were methodically gathering salaries but not working.

They say the company stalled the examination, purchased every action to be approved by its legal representatives and finally told Cole and King in a conference call to keep 2 sets of books.

The ramification for Cole was that they should omit from the federal government’s copy anything that would “be questionable and would reveal any failure or embarrassing detail.” The attorneys explained that info was covered under attorney-client privilege. The two private investigators, sitting together on the other end of the call, looked at each other in disbelief and shook their heads

“We understood right away that that’s scams, probably a criminal offense, and we weren’t going to be a part of it,” Cole stated.

Shortly after they alerted Sallyport that they wished to talk to managers who were suspects, their boss, Saffold, asked to come to his workplace. It was Sunday morning, and King left church early.

At an interview in his household home in Georgia, Cole recalled the great sand that stayed with his sweat as he walked throughout the base to the conference. Saffold bought armed guards to take their pistols and detain the 2 at their work stations. King burst into tears, and the guards apparently thought better of restraining her when she said she wanted to bring her Bible back to her quarters, the investigators state.

Cole and King said their termination paperwork was signed by the human resources supervisor they were investigating as part of the timesheet scams.

In an interview in Amarillo, Texas, where King has returned to work as a sheriff’s deputy, she expressed remorses.

“It injures me that I had to leave and not right problems that were happening, and it hurts me that they want to cover them up,” she said. “It’s so agonizing to me, it makes me lose sleep in the evening. Something’s incorrect and did not solve.”

Hinnant contributed from Paris. Susannah George in Baghdad and Jack Gillum in Washington contributed.

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