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Subcontractor for Pentagon criticized

Slain workers' relatives address a House panel probing war spending.

February 08, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The families of four security workers killed by a mob in Fallouja, Iraq, told a congressional panel Wednesday that the workers' employer, Blackwater USA, had failed to provide the arms and armor they needed for their protection.

Four female relatives said the men, whose bodies were burned and dragged through the streets in the 2004 attack, had been sent on a dangerous mission in vehicles without needed armor, maps, heavy machine guns or rear gunners.

"When the decision was made to save millions of dollars by not buying armored vehicles, our husbands, fathers and sons were killed," Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, mother of Stephen "Scott" Helvenston, said as she tearfully read a statement by the group.

The family members were called as part of an effort by the Democratic majority on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to look more closely at the Iraq war. The committee, chaired by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), is investigating whether the Pentagon, by increasing reliance on military contractors, is spending more while sacrificing accountability.

The families have sued Blackwater, maintaining that was the only way they could obtain information on how the four men were killed. Blackwater officials and some Republicans on the committee said the panel should not be investigating the subject while the suit was underway because it could affect the outcome.

The four men, all former military personnel, were escorting empty trucks en route to pick up kitchen equipment on March 31, 2004, when they were attacked by a mob. Two of the bodies were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River, in a videotaped scene that was widely broadcast and that changed some Americans' views of the Iraq effort.

Relatives say that the men were promised $600 a day but that Blackwater did not honor commitments to protect them as laid out in a written contract. Andrew Howell, general counsel for Blackwater, disputed that charge, saying the company lived up to its contract commitments.

The Army has confirmed, in response to questions from the committee, that Blackwater was providing security services in Iraq under a subcontract that was layered beneath many other subcontracts that were part of a contract between the government and Halliburton Co. There were so many subcontracts that it took the government months to find the Blackwater agreement, the Army told the panel.

Criticizing such practices, some committee members said that after each subcontractor added its charges, taxpayers were stuck with higher costs.

"This ongoing episode demonstrates the Pentagon's complete failure to safeguard taxpayer dollars," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Republican members, however, questioned whether the layering of contracts led to costs that were higher than what the military -- with its many rules and overhead -- pays for equivalent services.

Tina Ballard, an Army procurement official, told the panel that the layers of subcontracts were much like construction practices in the United States, and said the military had no authority to prohibit it.

Shortly after the House hearing ended, the Justice Department announced the indictment of three former Army colonels and two civilians in an alleged plot to convert millions of dollars meant for Iraq reconstruction into cash and expensive gifts for themselves.

A 25-count indictment unsealed in New Jersey says Col. Curtis G. Whiteford and Lt. Cols. Debra Harrison and Michael Wheeler helped rig the bids for $8.6 million worth of contracts let by the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq in 2003 and 2004. The beneficiaries that won the contracts were companies owned by an associate, Philip H. Bloom.

Bloom, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, bribery and money laundering, in turn provided the three officers with "over $1 million in cash, SUVs, sports cars, a motorcycle, jewelry, computers, business-class airline tickets, liquor, promise of future employment with Bloom and other items of value," said Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty.

Indicted along with the three former colonels were Michael Morris, an American living in Romania who owns a financial services business in Cyprus, and William Driver, Harrison's husband.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Joel Havemann in Washington contributed to this report.

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