The security firm once known as Blackwater has repeatedly tried to distance itself from its bad old days of wrongful death and corporate misconduct. But a new lawsuit filed by two former employees raises questions about whether the firm’s kinder, gentler rebranding is more than skin deep.
Two former employees of the firm, now called Academi, say that they were fired from their jobs in Afghanistan after blowing the whistle on an attempt by a colleague to falsify dozens of marksmanship tests for security contractors. Robert Winston and Allen Wheeler thought that they were following Academi’s new ethics guidelines, which require employees to report suspected instances of waste, fraud and abuse. But not only were Winston and Wheeler fired, they allege Academi arranged with the State Department to blacklist the two security contractors from finding future work with private security firms.
According to the lawsuit, which Nation reporter Jeremy Scahill first tweeted about on Thursday, Winston and Wheeler witnessed a fellow firearms instructor twice fail to record the results of shotgun and machine-gun training amongst dozens of Colombian employees of Academi. The State Department, which hires Academi to protect its diplomats in conflict zones, requires weapons certification from the guards: If contractors can’t properly fire their weapons, they’re a danger to diplomats in need of protection and innocent civilians nearby.
But on two occasions in March 2012, Winston and Wheeler say that instructor Timothy Enlow informed the State Department inaccurately that Academi’s guards were proficient with shotguns and machine guns. On the second occasion, Enlow failed to bring an M249 belt-fed machine gun to the test range near Kabul, but reported a successful test anyway.
“I know there is a lawsuit about Academi not qualifying contractors properly with the belt fed machine guns,” Enlow told the would-be marksmen, according to the lawsuit, “but I am going to help you guys out.”
A spokesman for Academi, John Procter, did not dispute the factual contentions in Winston and Wheeler’s suit when asked by Danger Room. Procter said the two were fired for taking 10 days to report the first falsified weapons qualification report — even though it was Winston and Wheeler who alerted Academi to the falsification in the first place.
“The company took swift and appropriate action to address a violation of its Code of Conduct and disciplined all those involved,” Procter tells Danger Room. “The response underscores the company’s commitment to the highest caliber of ethical conduct and business practices.”
Indeed, a central aspect of Winston and Wheeler’s complaint, which Danger Room acquired, is that Academi gave clear instructions to all employees that such behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. “We commit to you that ACADEMI will celebrate the courage of those who point out existing or potential issues, and that we will not retaliate against employees who raise legitimate ethical concerns,” new CEO Ted Wright assured employees in an employment document that Winston and Wheeler signed before arriving in Afghanistan.
Similarly, the fourth page of Academi’s code of conduct instructs employees, “do not remain silent” after observing potential malfeasance.
That’s a big concern for Academi. Under its old ownership, employees killed Iraqis at Baghdad’s Nisour Square and Afghans on the roads of Kabul; abused cocaine and steroids; and set up shell companies to ensure none of the controversies would prevent the firm from losing lucrative government contracts to guard diplomats in warzones.
The company’s new ownership has made rebranding the firm (yet again) its top P.R. priority. It hired an ethics chief, former Attorney General John Ashcroft. In an interview with Danger Room in December, Wright pledged that Academi’s new focus on business ethics would “take root” and the company would “convince everyone they’re real.” Just this week, Academi won acceptance to an anti-corruption initiative run by the World Economic Forum.
Winston and Wheeler know all about Academi’s attempts at purging itself of its past misdeeds. They’ve been with the firm since its original Blackwater incarnation. Winston, a former Army Ranger and Florida cop, logged time during some of Blackwater’s most controversial assignments: post-Katrina New Orleans and post-Nisour Square Baghdad. Wheeler, a former Ohio highway patrolman, was part of Blackwater’s “quick reaction force” in Afghanistan, a dangerous rescue assignment.
But Winston and Wheeler were blacklisted from the entire private security industry, they charge, after they mistakenly believed their supervisors would want to know about the cooked weapons qualification tests.
On March 26, ten days after the first falsified weapons test and three days after the second, Winston and Wheeler alerted their superiors in Afghanistan about the misconduct. The lawsuit states that they were thanked for bringing it to their attention. Two days later, they were informed of their termination. The stated cause: waiting so long to report the suspected malfeasance. They say, they spent the intervening days verifying that Enlow submitted the false reporting to a State Department database. Enlow has since been fired as well.
Upon returning to the United States, both learned they had been placed on the State Department’s “Do Not Use” list of disreputable contractors, which impedes their ability to work for rival security firms.
Procter did not have any comment about the Do Not Use list.
This isn’t the only lawsuit Academi is facing. As Enlow alluded to in Kabul, a different lawsuit, known as Beauchamp v. U.S. Training Center, became public last July. The claim, according to a summary by the Project on Government Oversight: making “a series of false statements and certifications to the government regarding the positions its employees were performing and their qualifications.”