US contractors at Iraq Airbase with F-16s involved in smuggling, prostitution

A soldier being recognized by Sallyport Global Holdings fire department on COB Basra for his service as a fire warden to one of the camps on base in 2011. Photo by Spc. James Kennedy Benjamin

A Virginia-based defense contractor operating in Iraq to secure Balad Air Base is under scrutiny today after the Associated Press reveals company employees act more like common criminals than professional representatives of their company and the U.S.

Sallyport Global was purportedly paid roughly $700 million by the Pentagon to secure the air base, which is home to a squadron of F-16 fighter. The jets, purchased by the Iraqis, are part of the U.S.-led coalition to annihilate the Islamic State.

According to the AP, the situation came to a head Sunday when American investigators headed to an emergency meeting with their boss on the Iraqi air base. What investigators didn’t expect was to be surrounded by armed guards, disarmed, detained against their will — and fired without explanation.

Robert Cole and Kristie King were working in Iraq as investigators for Sallyport Global. According to AP, Cole and King had spent more than a year together in Iraq investigating contractor misconduct at Balad and beyond.

The crimes Cole and King discovered are no laughing matter. Not only did Sallyport Global employees turn a blind eye to security concerns — then subsequently cover them up — they were also involved in smuggling alcohol and human trafficking.

The AP reports the investigators uncovered evidence employees were involved in sex trafficking, routinely flying in smuggled alcohol and instances of millions of dollars in theft by rogue militia who were allowed to steal enormous generators off the base using flatbed trucks and a 60-foot crane — driving past Sallyport security guards.

And while Cole and King were diligently conducting their investigations, they tell the AP Sallyport managers repeatedly shut down the investigators then failed to report their findings to the Pentagon.

In a press briefing today, Operation Inherent Resolve’s spokesman Air Force Col. John Dorrian said he defers comment on the contractor’s alleged misconduct to The Office of the Secretary of Defense.

“I am aware of the reports and the organization in question is not part of Operation Inherent Resolve, so I think you’ll probably have to work with OSD colleagues to pursue further comment on that,” Dorrian told reporters. “It’s not a part of my organization, and it’s not within my purview to discuss that.

When contacted by the AP, Sallyport’s representative said they take any allegation of wrongdoing seriously.

“Sallyport has a strong record of providing security and life support services in challenging war zones like Iraq and plays a major but unheralded role in the war against ISIS,” Chief Operating Officer Matt Stuckart wrote. “The company takes any suggestion of wrongdoing at Balad very seriously.”

But do they?

More than 150 documents obtained by AP, as well as interviews with more than a half-dozen former or current Sallyport employees, show how the contractor ran amok after being hired for lucrative and essential combat support operations. The investigators and other witnesses describe grave security breaches and illegal schemes that went unreported until the government asked about them.

According to the AP, the more time Cole spent on the base, the more he suspected company leadership was turning a blind eye to the misconduct.

The AP reports a Sallyport employee who worked in the air terminal described in late 2015 that co-workers were involved in a smuggling scheme. They were bringing in cases and cases of water bottles filled with liquor that they’d hide on planes flying in from Baghdad.

Steve Anderson, who worked on flight logistics, tells the AP he was pressured to sign off on faked flight manifests that omitted passenger names and falsified the weight of cargo to cover for the alcohol smuggling and other infractions — a violation of international flight regulations. The planes were getting so weighed down he was worried about flight safety.

“They were playing Russian roulette with passengers’ lives — including mine,” Anderson said.

The AP reports when Anderson aired his concerns to management and refused to sign the falsified manifests, his boss said he didn’t want to hear about any more problems.

“He said, ‘If you don’t like the job that you’re doing maybe you ought to find somewhere else to work.’”

When Cole and King, along with an Iraqi investigator, decided to go undercover on a tip that the bootleggers were working out of two hotels in Baghdad, their investigation yielded something a bit more disturbing — human trafficking and prostitution.

According to the AP, the hotel had been running a prostitution ring, and Sallyport employees were among its customers, informants told Cole and King. Four Ethiopian women who earlier worked as prostitutes at the hotel were later hired in housekeeping by Sallyport, and were still sending money back to a pimp in the al Burhan.

Cole and King told the AP evidence suggested Sallyport managers had either knowingly or unwittingly supported human trafficking involving vulnerable female immigrants in a war zone, a revelation the company would be required to report to the U.S. government under federal law.

From human trafficking, prostitution and alcohol abuse on a dry base to fraudulent timesheet accounting, the AP reports the weather was about to turn really turbulent for Cole and King.

According to the AP, they had begun yet another investigation into timesheet fraud after getting a tip Sallyport employees were systematically collecting salaries but not working.

The investigators tell the AP Sallyport stalled the investigation, ordered every step to be approved by its lawyers and finally told Cole and King in a conference call to keep two sets of books.

The implication for Cole was they should omit from the government’s copy anything that would “be controversial and would reveal any failure or embarrassing detail.”

Lawyers explained to the two investigators information was covered under attorney-cflient privilege. Cole and King tell the AP they were sitting together on the other end of the call looking at each other in disbelief and shook their heads

“We realized right away that that’s fraud, probably a crime, and we weren’t going to be a part of it,” Cole tells the AP.

According to the AP, shortly after Cole and King notified Sallyport they wanted to interview managers who were suspects, their boss, Saffold, asked them to come to his office. It was Sunday morning — the day they were both fired on the spot.

The investigators tell the AP their termination paperwork was signed by one of their suspects … the human resources manager they were investigating in regard to timesheet fraud.

In an interview with AP from Amarillo, Texas, where King has returned to work as a sheriff’s deputy, she expressed regrets.

“It hurts me that I had to leave and not correct issues that were occurring, and it hurts me that they want to cover them up,” she said. “It’s so painful to me, it makes me lose sleep at night. Something’s wrong and did not get right.”

Leadership in Iraq is not willing to discuss the situation with the media, and when pressed today whether or not OIR’s Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend is aware of the situation … or if Townsend has read the AP’s story, Dorrian said, “I don’t know if he’s read it or not.”

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  • Jim Verchio is a staff writer for Popular Military. As a retired Air Force Public Affairs craftsman, Jim has served at all levels. From staff writer to Editor-In-Chief, he has more than 30 years experience covering military topics in print and broadcast from the CONUS to Afghanistan. He is also a two time recipient of the DoD’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award for journalism excellence.

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