Company That Had Convicts Build Defective Combat Helmets Got Off With a Small Fine
The hero who reported the alleged scam is back in jail, while none of the executives involved face criminal charges for the fraud.
Here is a scandal to raise your ire on Labor Day.
Fraud and the production of defective combat helmets in time of war were certainly not what President Franklin Roosevelt hoped inmates would be learning when he signed Executive Order No. 6917, on Dec. 11, 1934, creating Federal Prison Industries to allow “industrial operations (to) be carried on in the several penal and correctional institutions of the United States.”
The subsequent mission statement issued by this government-owned company says, “The mission of Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI) is to protect society and reduce crime by preparing inmates for successful reentry through job training.”
In recent times, FPI has assumed the trade name Unicor, but its avowed purpose has remained the same as it has grown to a workforce of 21,000 in various types of manufacturing at 109 correctional institutions.
“The impetus behind FPI is not about business, but rather inmate release preparation,” the company says. “UNICOR assists offenders with acquiring marketable job skills so that they can one day become law-abiding, contributing members of society. The production of items and provision of services are merely by-products of those efforts.”
A seven-year U.S. Department of Justice investigation suggests that a very different kind of job training took place at the FPI facility in the federal prison in Beaumont, Texas between 2006 and 2009. The summary report–released in August—is titled “Findings of Fraud and Other Irregularities Related to the Manufacture and Sale of Combat Helmets by the Federal Prison Industries and ArmorSource.” It says that inmates were placed on production lines where “helmets were manufactured with degraded or unauthorized ballistic materials, used expired paint and unauthorized manufacturing methods. Helmets also had other defects such as deformities and the investigations found that rejected helmets were sold to the DOD.”
Inmates also got an education in fraud. The report says, “Manufacturing documents were altered by inmates at the direction of FPI staff that falsely indicated helmets passed inspection and met contract specifications.”
The investigation was prompted when two FPI managers came forward. They filed a whistleblower lawsuit, and an affidavit submitted by one of them quotes an inmate saying to her, “There is so much crooked stuff going on with these helmets.”
“You just do not want to know what all goes on around here,” the inmate allegedly added.
The Beaumont-style job training began after the Department of Defense in 2006 issued contract number W911QY-06-D-0006, for the production of Advanced Combat Helmets, to a group of companies that included Rabintex of Israel and Ohio Armor of Ohio. The companies operated as ArmorSource and subcontracted with Unicor.
The whistleblower lawsuit asserts that ArmorSource directed and controlled production of the defective helmets and the accompanying fraud. The DOJ investigation found only that ArmorSource “did not provide adequate oversight.” DOJ places most of the blame on FPI.
After the report was released, the federal Bureau of Prisons said that FPI “began taking corrective actions” as soon as it became aware of the problem. But BOP refused to make anybody available for an interview about how such a monstrous betrayal of FPI’s avowed purpose came to occur in the first place.
ArmorSource offered no comment. It did settle the whistleblower suit, but was not required to admit wrongdoing and did not do so. It paid $3 million, roughly a tenth of $30,336,461.04 it had been awarded for the contract.
“Not even a slap on the wrist,” says attorney Andrew Campanelli, who represented the two whistleblowers.
ArmorSource has since secured a new contract for combat helmets, which it is producing at its new “state of the art” facility in a former auto parts plant in Hebron, Ohio.
As described in the lawsuit, the production of the ACH helmets in the Beaumont prison began simply enough, with inmates “placing helmet outer shells upside-down, and then placing a set of Kevlar discs inside the inverted shell.”
The problem, the suit says, was that the fit was slightly off and the ends of the Kevlar protruded beyond the rim of the helmet.
“Repeatedly pushing the ends of the disk back inside the shell at multiple times in the manufacturing process was not only time consuming, but was slowing down the production process of the helmets,” the suit says.
The solution, the suit goes on to say, was a process called “cleaning.”
“Cleaning, in actuality, is a process of adulterating the Kevlar shields by physically removing strands of Kevlar from the shields so inmates could install them more quickly,” the suit says.
Inmates were given a block of wood from which one or more screws protruded.
“They would rake the screws down the edges of the material, removing cross threads of Kevlar from each disk,” the suit reports. “By causing the removal of the cross threads of Kevlar with all the discs, the defendants reduced the weave density of the Kevlar below the critical minimum.”
The suit continues, “Each removal of cross threads creates ‘unprotected’ areas within each helmet, within which a projectile striking the helmet would encounter little, if any, resistance to penetration.”
The suit adds, “Virtually all ACH helmets produced… at the Beaumont facility were ‘cleaned,’ and thereby afforded less ballistic protection.”
The DOJ investigation report calls the process not “cleaning,” but “stripping,” and includes a photo of one of the tools “used to strip Kevlar.” There is also a photo of the result.
“ACH torn and altered ballistic material,” the caption says.
FPI applied for a DOD contract of its own, SPM1C1-08-D-0C102, for the manufacture of Light Weight Marine helmets (LMCH’s) at Beaumont. The LMCHs required a lighter weight Kevlar than the FPI had already acquired for the heavier ACH.
“The defendants purchased a minimal amount of the proper Kevlar, for the manufacture of a ‘first article,’ or sample, LMCH, which they presented to DOD,” the lawsuit says. “Based upon that sample provided by the defendants, which included the proper Kevlar which the defendants purchased only for the sample, the DOD awarded the full contract for the LMCH and the defendants commenced manufacturing LMCH helmets, but employed the old Kevlar discs, which were intended for ACHs.”
The lawsuit alleges that FPI used Kevlar that had been stored under a leaky roof for several years.
“Much of the old Kevlar was in such poor condition, and had become so brittle, that workers in the factory had to pound the Kevlar with heavy objects to make it pliable enough to insert the discs into the helmets being manufactured,” the suit says.
Both ACH and the LMCH helmets had to be painted. The DOJ report says that FPI used paint that was past its expired date on the LMCH helmets. The lawsuit contends it was also used on the ACH helmets.
“As a result of employing expired paint, almost immediately upon the DOD’s receipt of the helmets, the paint on exterior of the delivered helmets began to peel, crack, and/or flake off," the suit says. “The DOD notified the defendants of such defective condition, and the defendants promised to remedy the conditions.”
The lawsuit says manufacturers proposed hand sanding the helmets with a particular grade of sandpaper so as not to “adversely affect or weaken the integrity of the outer shell of the helmets.” The DOD agreed.
“Instead, the defendants caused the staff at the factory to employ [power] hand grinders and metal objects which they repeatedly struck against the outer shell of the helmets to chip off defective paint,” the suit alleges. “The DOD would never have approved the method.”
The suit says that the facility got advance word of a DOD visit “to ensure that the proper remedying procedure was being employed.”
“The defendants collected all of the hand grinders and metal objects, placed them into a bucket, and hid them in a closet,” the suit charges. “Then, for the sole purpose of misleading representatives of the DOD, the defendants set-up a fake factory line of factory workers who were hand-sanding helmets.”
The suit goes on, “After DOD representatives inspecting the factory had left, the defendants caused the factory workers to take the hand grinders and metal objects back out the closet and resume chipping the defective paint by repeatedly striking the helmets with metal objects, thereby reducing the structural integrity of the helmet.”
But at a later date, investigators made an unannounced visit where there was no advance tip-off. The DOJ report includes a photo of a helmet that appears to have been power sanded as well as photos of numerous paint chipping instruments that look unsettling like improvised shivs inmates have been known to wield against each other with homicidal results.
“A surprise inspection…uncovered inmates at the Beaumont FPI facility openly using improvised tools, on the ACH helmets, damaging the helmets' ballistic material, creating the potential for the tools’ use as weapons in the prison and, thereby, endangering the safety of factory staff and degrading prison security,” the DOJ report says.
The lawsuit says that more on-the-job training came when inmates assigned to quality control rejected helmets that clearly did not meet DOD standards.
“We don’t have rejects,” a supervisor is quoted telling an inmate.
The DOJ report notes, “Manufacturing documents were altered by inmates at the direction of FPI staff that falsely indicated helmets passed inspection and met contract specifications.”
How’s that for teaching the virtues of honest labor?
The hitch for the manufacturers was that the quality-control inmates had kept with established procedure and dutifully recorded the serial numbers of the rejected helmets.
“To conceal the fact that these helmets were rejects, the defendants simply caused [inmates] to remove the original serial numbers, and to place ‘new’ serial numbers on the previously rejected helmets,” the suit says. “False records within the factory indicate that the rejected helmets were destroyed, or ‘crushed.’ The rejected helmets were not crushed but were, in actuality, shipped to the DOD, albeit with different serial numbers.’”
The exhibits accompanying the suit include rafts of documents in which the serial numbers appear to have been changed. The suit says one of the bosses grew weary of having to do all this and, “explicitly threatened the factory workers that he would fire any inmate that boxed up (set aside) defective helmets.”
Some inmates proved to be heroes of a kind.
“Despite constantly threatening factory workers that they would be fired if they rejected any helmets, some helmets manufactured by the defendants were of such poor quality that even the prison inmates that were employed at the factory refused to let them pass inspection,” the suit says.
The suit names one inmate in connection with an admirable demonstration of what was probably both defiance and decency.
“In a single day, factory workers rejected 150 helmets for [paint] ‘blisters’ alone,” the suit states. “As a result, [a civilian supervisor] fired factory worker Brandon Henderson, registration number 032540-078, for removing defective helmets from the production line.”
Periodically, the DOD asked for “random samples” for quality testing. The suit reports that “the defendants ‘handpicked’ helmets for inspection, or specifically manufactured helmets which were designed solely to pass the very test they knew the DOD intended to perform upon the helmets.”
The DOJ report confirms, “FPI pre-selected helmets for inspection, even though the DOD and ACH contract required helmets to be selected randomly, and substituted helmets to pass testing.”
In 2009, two civilian mid-level managers, Sharon Chubb and Melessa Ponzio, went to the inspector general of the Department of Justice and recounted what they had witnessed. The government issued a “global recall” for all 126,052 ACH helmets as well as 23,000 LMCH helmets in 2010, thankfully before anyone was known to have been killed or suffered serious injury as a result of a defect. The manufacturing facility in Beaumont prison was closed.
The Department of Justice commenced its lengthy investigation, two probes if you wish to look at the ACH and LMCH separately. The final lesson for the inmates came with the summary report whose very title announced findings of fraud, but found no individuals responsible for breaking the law.
“Criminal prosecution resulting from these investigations was declined,” the report says.
Brandon Henderson, inmate 0354-078, the hero fired on his day of defiance and decency, appears to have subsequently completed his sentence for drugs. Records indicate that he was freed in 2012 after serving 13 years, to be followed by five years of supervised release.
Last November, 52-year-old Henderson was arrested in Kaufman, Texas, for using a fake ID in a fraudulent attempt to obtain in excess of $2,500 and less than $30,000. His supervised release was revoked and he was sent back to prison for 12 months.
That is 12 months more than anybody served for the fake invoices and fake reports and fraudulent serial numbers and sham factory lines and hidden tools and various other frauds committed in the production of 149,052 defective combat helmets during our longest war.
Henderson, who is said to have refused to go along with those greater frauds, is being held at the federal medium security prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi.
The facility has an FPI factory whose stated purpose is also “to protect society and reduce crime by preparing inmates for successful reentry through job training.