Insight on the News - National
Kelly Patricia O Meara
Middle-aged men having sex with 12- to 15-year-olds was too much for Ben Johnston, a hulking 6-foot-5-inch Texan, and more than a year ago he blew the whistle on his employer, DynCorp, a U.S. contracting company doing business in Bosnia.
According to the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) lawsuit filed in Texas on behalf of the former DynCorp aircraft mechanic, "in the latter part of 1999 Johnston learned that employees and supervisors from DynCorp were engaging in perverse, illegal and inhumane behavior [and] were purchasing illegal weapons, women, forged passports and [participating in] other immoral acts. Johnston witnessed coworkers and supervisors literally buying and selling women for their own personal enjoyment, and employees would brag about the various ages and talents of the individual slaves they had purchased."
Rather than acknowledge and reward Johnston's effort to get this behavior stopped, DynCorp fired him, forcing him into protective custody by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) until the investigators could get him safely out of Kosovo and returned to the United States. That departure from the war-torn country was a far cry from what Johnston imagined a year earlier when he arrived in Bosnia to begin a three-year U.S. Air Force contract with DynCorp as an aircraft-maintenance technician for Apache and Blackhawk helicopters.
For more than 50 years DynCorp, based in Reston, Va., has been a worldwide force providing maintenance support to the U.S. military through contract field teams (CFTs). As one of the federal government's top 25 contractors, DynCorp has received nearly $1 billion since 1995 for these services and has deployed 181 personnel to Bosnia during the last six years. Although DynCorp long has been respected for such work, according to Johnston and internal DynCorp communications it appears that extracurricular sexcapades on the part of its employees were tolerated by some as part of its business in Bosnia.
But DynCorp was nervous. For instance, an internal e-mail from DynCorp employee Darrin Mills, who apparently was sent to Bosnia to look into reported problems, said, "I met with Col. Braun [a base supervisor] yesterday. He is very concerned about the CID investigation; however, he views it mostly as a DynCorp problem. What he wanted to talk about most was how I am going to fix the maintenance problems here and how the investigation is going to impact our ability to fix his airplanes." The Mills e-mail continued: "The first thing he told me is that 'they are tired of having smoke blown up their ass.' They don't want anymore empty promises."
An e-mail from Dyncorp's Bosnia site supervisor, John Hirtz (later fired for alleged sexual indiscretions), explains DynCorp's position in Bosnia. "The bottom line is that DynCorp has taken what used to be a real positive program that has very high visibility with every Army unit in the world and turned it into a bag of worms. Poor quality was the major issue."
Johnston was on the ground and saw firsthand what the military was complaining about. "My main problem," he explains, "was [sexual misbehavior] with the kids, but I wasn't too happy with them ripping off the government, either. DynCorp is just as immoral and elite as possible, and any rule they can break they do. There was this one guy who would hide parts so we would have to wait for parts and, when the military would question why it was taking so long, he'd pull out the part and say 'Hey, you need to install this.' They'd have us replace windows in helicopters that weren't bad just to get paid. They had one kid, James Harlin, over there who was right out of high school and he didn't even know the names and purposes of the basic tools. Soldiers that are paid $18,000 a year know more than this kid, but this is the way they [DynCorp] grease their pockets. What they say in Bosnia is that DynCorp just needs a warm body — that's the DynCorp slogan. Even if you don't do an eight-hour day, they'll sign you in for it because that's how they bill the government. It's a total fraud."
Remember, Johnston was fired by this company. He laughs bitterly recalling the work habits of a DynCorp employee in Bosnia who "weighed 400 pounds and would stick cheeseburgers in his pockets and eat them while he worked. The problem was he would literally fall asleep every five minutes. One time he fell asleep with a torch in his hand and burned a hole through the plastic on an aircraft." This same man, according to Johnston, "owned a girl who couldn't have been more than 14 years old. It's a sick sight anyway to see any grown man [having sex] with a child, but to see some 45-year-old man who weighs 400 pounds with a little girl, it just makes you sick." It is precisely these allegations that Johnston believes got him fired.
Johnston reports that he had been in Bosnia only a few days when he became aware of misbehavior in which many of his DynCorp colleagues were involved. He tells INSIGHT, "I noticed there were problems as soon as I got there, and I tried to be covert because I knew it was a rougher crowd than I'd ever dealt with. It's not like I don't drink or anything, but DynCorp employees would come to work drunk. A DynCorp van would pick us up every morning and you could smell the alcohol on them. There were big-time drinking issues. I always told these guys what I thought of what they were doing, and I guess they just thought I was a self-righteous fool or something, but I didn't care what they thought."
The mix of drunkenness and working on multimillion-dollar aircraft upon which the lives of U.S. military personnel depended was a serious enough issue, but Johnston drew the line when it came to buying young girls and women as sex slaves. "I heard talk about the prostitution right away, but it took some time before I understood that they were buying these girls. I'd tell them that it was wrong and that it was no different than slavery — that you can't buy women. But they'd buy the women's passports and they [then] owned them and would sell them to each other."
"At first," explains Johnston, "I just told the guys it was wrong. Then I went to my supervisors, including John Hirtz, although at the time I didn't realize how deep into it he was. Later I learned that he had videotaped himself having sex with two girls and CID has that video as evidence. Hirtz is the guy who would take new employees to the brothels and set them up so he got his women free. The Serbian mafia would give Hirtz the women free and, when one of the guys was leaving the country, Hirtz would go to the mafia and make sure that the guys didn't owe them any money."
"None of the girls," continues Johnston, "were from Bosnia. They were from Russia, Romania and other places, and they were imported in by DynCorp and the Serbian mafia. These guys would say 'I gotta go to Serbia this weekend to pick up three girls.' They talk about it and brag about how much they pay for them — usually between $600 and $800. In fact, there was this one guy who had to be 60 years old who had a girl who couldn't have been 14. DynCorp leadership was 100 percent in bed with the mafia over there. I didn't get any results from talking to DynCorp officials, so I went to Army CID and I drove around with them, pointing out everyone's houses who owned women and weapons."
That's when Johnston's life took a dramatic turn.
On June 2, 2000, members of the 48th Military Police Detachment conducted a sting on the DynCorp hangar at Comanche Base Camp, one of two U.S. bases in Bosnia, and all DynCorp personnel were detained for questioning. CID spent several weeks working the investigation and the results appear to support Johnston's allegations. For example, according to DynCorp employee Kevin Werner's sworn statement to CID, "during my last six months I have come to know a man we call 'Debeli,' which is Bosnian for fat boy. He is the operator of a nightclub by the name of Harley's that offers prostitution. Women are sold hourly, nightly or permanently."
Werner admitted to having purchased a woman to get her out of prostitution and named other DynCorp employees who also had paid to own women. He further admitted to having purchased weapons (against the law in Bosnia) and it was Werner who turned over to CID the videotape made by Hirtz. Werner apparently intended to use the video as leverage in the event that Hirtz decided to fire him. Werner tells CID, "I told him [Hirtz] I had a copy and that all I wanted was to be treated fairly. If I was going to be fired or laid off, I wanted it to be because of my work performance and not because he was not happy with me."
According to Hirtz's own sworn statement to CID, there appears to be little doubt that he did indeed rape one of the girls with whom he is shown having sexual intercourse in his homemade video.
CID: Did you have sexual intercourse with the second woman on the tape?
CID: Did you have intercourse with the second woman after she said "no" to you?
Hirtz: I don't recall her saying that. I don't think it was her saying "no."
CID: Who do you think said "no"?
Hirtz: I don't know.
CID: According to what you witnessed on the videotape played for you in which you were having sexual intercourse with the second woman, did you have sexual intercourse with the second woman after she said "no" to you?
CID: Did you know you were being videotaped?
Hirtz: Yes. I set it up.
CID: Did you know it is wrong to force yourself upon someone without their consent?
The CID agents did not ask any of the men involved what the ages of the "women" were who had been purchased or used for prostitution. According to CID, which sought guidance from the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate in Bosnia, "under the Dayton Peace Accord, the contractors were protected from Bosnian law which did not apply to them. They knew of no [U.S.] federal laws that would apply to these individuals at this time."
However, CID took another look and, according to the investigation report, under Paragraph 5 of the NATO Agreement Between the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia regarding the status of NATO and its personnel, contractors "were not immune from local prosecution if the acts were committed outside the scope of their official duties."
Incredibly, the CID case was closed in June 2000 and turned over to the Bosnian authorities. DynCorp says it conducted its own investigation, and Hirtz and Werner were fired by DynCorp and returned to the United States but were not prosecuted. Experts in slave trafficking aren't buying the CID's interpretation of the law.
Widney Brown, an advocate for Human Rights Watch, tells INSIGHT "our government has an obligation to tell these companies that this behavior is wrong and they will be held accountable. They should be sending a clear message that it won't be tolerated. One would hope that these people wouldn't need to be told that they can't buy women, but you have to start off by laying the ground rules. Rape is a crime in any jurisdiction and there should not be impunity for anyone. Firing someone is not sufficient punishment. This is a very distressing story — especially when you think that these people and organizations are going into these countries to try and make it better, to restore a rule of law and some civility."
Christine Dolan, founder of the International Humanitarian Campaign Against the Exploitation of Children, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, tells Insight: "What is surprising to me is that Dyncorp has kept this contract. The U.S. says it wants to eradicate trafficking of people, has established an office in the State Department for this purpose, and yet neither State nor the government-contracting authorities have stepped in and done an investigation of this matter."
Dolan says, "It's not just Americans who are participating in these illegal acts. But what makes this more egregious for the U.S. is that our purpose in those regions is to restore some sense of civility. Now you've got employees of U.S. contractors in bed with the local mafia and buying kids for sex! That these guys have some kind of immunity from prosecution is morally outrageous. How can men be allowed to get away with rape simply because of location? Rape is a crime no matter where it occurs and it's important to remember that even prostitution is against the law in Bosnia. The message we're sending to kids is that it's okay for America's representatives to rape children. We talk about the future of the children, helping to build economies, democracy, the rule of law, and at the same time we fail to prosecute cases like this. That is immoral and hypocritical, and if DynCorp is involved in this in any way it should forfeit its contract and pay restitution in the form of training about trafficking."
Charlene Wheeless, a spokeswoman for DynCorp, vehemently denies any culpability on the part of the company, According to Wheeless, "The notion that a company such as DynCorp would turn a blind eye to illegal behavior by our employees is incomprehensible. DynCorp adheres to a core set of values that has served as the backbone of our corporation for the last 55 years, helping us become one of the largest and most respected professional-services and outsourcing companies in the world. We can't stress strongly enough that, as an employee-owned corporation, we take ethics very seriously. DynCorp stands by its decision to terminate [whistle-blower] Ben Johnston, who was terminated for cause."
What was the "cause" for which Johnston was fired? He received his only reprimand from DynCorp one day prior to the sting on the DynCorp hangar when Johnston was working with CID. A week later he received a letter of discharge for bringing "discredit to the company and the U.S. Army while working in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina." The discharge notice did not say how Johnston "brought discredit to the company."
It soon developed conveniently, according to Johnston's attorneys, that he was implicated by a DynCorp employee for illegal activity in Bosnia. Harlin, the young high-school graduate Johnston complained had no experience in aircraft maintenance and didn't even know the purposes of the basic tools, provided a sworn statement to CID about Johnston. Asked if anyone ever had offered to sell him a weapon, Harlin fingered Johnston and DynCorp employee Tom Oliver, who also had disapproved of the behavior of DynCorp employees.
Harlin even alleged that Johnston was "hanging out with Kevin Werner." Although Werner had no problem revealing the names and illegal activities of other DynCorp employees, Werner did not mention Johnston's name in his sworn statement.
Kevin Glasheen, Johnston's attorney, says flatly of this: "It's DynCorp's effort to undermine Ben's credibility. But I think once the jury hears this case, that accusation is only going to make them more angry at DynCorp. In order to make our claim, we have to show that DynCorp was retaliating against Ben, and that fits under racketeering. There is a lot of evidence that shows this was what they were doing and that it went all the way up the management chain."
According to Glasheen, "DynCorp says that whatever these guys were doing isn't corporate activity and they're not responsible for it. But this problem permeated their business and management and they made business decisions to further the scheme and to cover it up. We have to show that there was a causal connection between Ben's whistle-blowing about the sex trade and his being fired. We can do that. We're here to prove a retaliation case, not convict DynCorp of participating in the sex-slave trade.
"What you have here is a Lord of the Flies mentality. Basically you've got a bunch of strong men who are raping and manipulating young girls who have been kidnapped from their homes. Who's the bad guy? Is it the guy who buys the girl to give her freedom, the one who kidnaps her and sells her or the one who liberates her and ends up having sex with her? And what does it mean when the U.S. steps up and says, 'We don't have any jurisdiction'? That's absurd."
The outraged attorney pauses for breath. "This is more than one twisted mind. There was a real corporate culture with a deep commitment to a cover-up. And it's outrageous that DynCorp still is being paid by the government on this contract. The worst thing I've seen is a DynCorp e-mail after this first came up where they're saying how they have turned this thing into a marketing success, that they have convinced the government that they could handle something like this."
Johnston is not the only DynCorp employee to blow the whistle and sue the billion-dollar government contractor. Kathryn Bolkovac, a U.N. International Police Force monitor hired by the U.S. company on another U.N.-related contract, has filed a lawsuit in Great Britain against DynCorp for wrongful termination. DynCorp had a $15 million contract to hire and train police officers for duty in Bosnia at the time she reported such officers were paying for prostitutes and participating in sex-trafficking. Many of these were forced to resign under suspicion of illegal activity, but none have been prosecuted, as they also enjoy immunity from prosecution in Bosnia.
DynCorp has admitted it fired five employees for similar illegal activities prior to Johnston's charges.
But Johnston worries about what this company's culture does to the reputation of the United States. "The Bosnians think we're all trash. It's a shame. When I was there as a soldier they loved us, but DynCorp employees have changed how they think about us. I tried to tell them that this is not how all Americans act, but it's hard to convince them when you see what they're seeing. The fact is, DynCorp is the worst diplomat you could possibly have over there."
Johnston's attorney looks to the outcome. "How this all ends," says Glasheen, "will say a lot about what we stand for and what we won't stand for."
Kelly Patricia O'Meara is an investigative reporter for Insight.