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Ex-Marines Suing U.S. Security Contractor

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A lawsuit in Washington is raising new questions about the outsourcing of security to protect U.S. diplomats abroad. Today, two ex-Marines sued Virginia-based ArmorGroup North America and its British parent company for firing them. They were let go after they accused the company of misleading the State Department in order to win a contract to secure the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.

NPR's Michelle Kelemen reports.

MICHELLE KELEMEN: Jim Sauer said he saw the problems right from the start. He arrived in Kabul last February to help ArmorGroup get ready to take over security at the U.S. Embassy, and he found the company didn't have the resources or the manpower it claimed to have when he it got the contract from the Department of State.

Mr. JIM SAUER (Retired Marine; Former Contractor, ArmorGroup North America): The way I look at it, you know - I've been a retired Marine, I can secure an embassy with a slingshot or a roll of duct tape, but there are certain things you need to stay in compliance with the contract.

KELEMEN: He was mainly worried about salary cuts and the tough schedules for the guards, namely Gurkhas from the Nepalese, British and Indian Armies. Sauer says Armor Group was planning to keep salaries low and force them to work long hours, and he was concerned they would either walk off the job or be too tired to protect the embassy.

MR. SAUER: At the time, we were told by the human resources director from ArmorGroup International, Caroline Ruart that we should walk them in their rooms until they decide to work, which is exactly the attitude that augmented the colonialist approach to the Gurkha situation.

KELEMEN: Peter Martino, Sauer's deputy and co-plaintiff in the case, says the problem was that ArmorGroup had underbid the contract. So in order to make a profit, it was trying to cut corners.

Mr. PETER MARTINO (Retired Marine): The embassy in Kabul is probably the, you know, the top - one of the top two targets, you know, on the planet for terrorism. And, you know, to play a corporate profit games in the security of that is just something that Jim and I wouldn't stand for. And as result, you know, we were punished for it.

KELEMEN: When the two men went to the embassy's regional security officer to raise red flags in June, ArmorGroup fired them. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack wouldn't comment on their lawsuit, but said the U.S. did follow up on the concerns they raised.

Mr. SEAN McCORMACK (Spokesman, U.S. State Department): Once we heard these allegations, we confronted the ArmorGroup and put them on notice.

KELEMEN: McCormack said ArmorGroup took some corrective steps and changed some of its policies, but he didn't offer specifics.

Mr. McCORMACK: It's our assessment that the original concerns have been addressed by ArmorGroup North America through the contract the administration processed and that, at this point, no further action is required.

KELEMEN: The company said, in a written statement, that Sauer and Martino are quote, "two disgruntled employees out on a smear-campaign and only interested in a financial windfall from any potential settlement." ArmorGroup said it will vigorously defend its good name. The plaintiffs' lawyer, Debra Katz, seems to be ready for a fight.

Ms. DEBRA KATZ (Plaintiffs' Lawyer): When conscientious people, like Jim and Pete, put their careers on the line by reporting fraud, waste, and abuse, improper statements, sued Department of State that the Department State does not itself appear to be willing to patrol. And they put their careers on the line and they suffered the ultimate penalty - the termination of blackballing, they deserve redress, and that's what we're going to get them in this case.

KELEMEN: Her client, Peter Martino, said he's also hoping to stir a debate about the security contracting business, and whether companies are ever held to account. He wouldn't speak about the current situation of the embassy in Kabul, but he and Sauer have their doubts the situation has improved.

Michelle Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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