WASHINGTON – A federal judge wants a closer examination of allegations that a defense contractor knowingly hired interpreters who failed language proficiency exams and sent them to work alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema on Friday rejected a bid by the contractor, Mission Essential Personnel of Columbus, Ohio, to have the case thrown out. Attorneys for the company argued the suit brought by Paul Funk, a former Mission Essential Personnel employee-turned-whistleblower, is based on speculation and assertions.
But Brinkema disagreed. She said she is allowing the case to move forward because the service being provided to the government — qualified translators working in a war zone — is so important to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
"Let the light be shone upon the situation," she said at a hearing. "These types of contracts have to be fastidiously complied with."
Skilled translators are a critical link between American troops, civilian officials and Afghans, most of whom speak Dari and Pashto. Without clear communications, American and Afghan lives are at greater risk, according to military officials.
Mission Essential Personnel — known as MEP — received a contract from the Army's Intelligence and Security Command in May 2007 for linguist and translation services. Through the contract, now valued at $1.4 billion, MEP has hired close to 6,000 interpreters in Afghanistan. Nearly 4,500 of those are Afghans or other non-U.S. citizens. The rest are U.S. citizens with security clearances who can earn more than $200,000 a year.
MEP says it has received outstanding performance ratings from the Army, proof the company is delivering qualified interpreters.
But Funk, who worked as an MEP manager in 2007 and 2008, claims the company billed the government for translators who didn't make the grade. His lawsuit alleges a pattern of fraud aimed at meeting the military's growing demand for Afghan interpreters: test results doctored, cheat sheets given to applicants and candidates who could barely speak English.
"They are not testing appropriately," said Kit Pierson, Funk's attorney. "And when people don't pass, they're being moved through the pipeline anyway."
MEP has called Funk a disgruntled ex-employee who resigned from the company due to unspecified "financial improprieties" in his office. When Funk sought to get his job back, the company says it refused, and Funk responded by suing.
But in documents filed in federal court, Funk's attorneys say he did nothing improper while at MEP and that the company is trying to sully his reputation to discredit the case.
In Brinkema's courtroom, Tony Anikeeff, MEP's attorney, urged the judge to dismiss the case. Funk's claims of fraud suffer from an "utter failure of proof" and gloss over the complexities of the Army contract, Anikeeff said.
Funk's claims were filed under the False Claims Act, which allows citizens to sue federal contractors on behalf of the United States if they have evidence of fraud. If the case is successful, the person who files the suit receives a share of the recovered money.
Mission Essential Personnel: http://www.missionep.com/