This Thing Called Courage

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Trip to the North Country; Don't Squeal on Government Corruption or You'll Go to Jail

ON A WHIM, Vonn and I decided to go up to the North Country yesterday, as it was one of those Perfect Ten days that we often get here in New England from late August to late September-- sunny, dry, a lovely breeze from the northwest, huge, man-o-war clouds, and the light sublime. I drove up to Vonn's house in Windham, NH, then we headed north from there, reaching the mountains about an hour later. It's amazing when you're hanging on the edge of a mountain, with a breathtaking view in front of you, to understand you're on the same road (Route 93) on which I'm frequently a prisoner in traffic, in Boston or Somerville, and surrounded by urban blight. Our first stop was the Flume Area in Franconia Notch Park, a brief I-gotta-pee respite (see pic above, of Mounts Lafayette, Liberty, etc); we got back in the car and headed north. We decided we'd drive up to Mount Washington (the highest peak in New England and third-highest peak east of the Mississippi, a truly massive mountain boasting the worst weather in the world-- for example, the highest wind speed ever recorded on earth, 230 MPH). We drove by the famnous Mount Washington Hotel, one of the few surviving 'Grand Dame' hotels from the time when the rich and famous from around the country would flock to the mountains for the holidays. We continued along Route 302, then stopped at Crawford Notch for our hike. There's a big Appalachian Mountain Club center there, as well as a store they run; a sign in the store told us the well-heeled visitors of yesteryear were waited on 'hand and foot.'

A Notch in the north country parlance is, as it sounds, a gap in the mountains. The Crawford Notch narrows amazingly at one point, then just drops on down, (see pic above, with Vonn) following the plunge of the Saco River beside it on its tumbling, cascading way to Portland (Maine) Harbor and the mighty waters of the North Atlantic. We found a flume (a mountain waterfall/cascade type brook, mostly vertical) tumbling down a mountain, called 'The Flume Cascade,' and decided to hike up it. It's hard to describe the severe angle of this rocky, boulder-ridden Stairway to Heaven; (see pic above, showing ledge-- that little ribbony thing far far below is Route 302): it's basically like rock climbing with a waterfall beside you, and occasionally the waterfall pauses for breath for a bit and forms into these lovely little pools, at which we bathed our hot and tired feet. The water was cold, as one would expect, but not icy, and felt wonderful. Each time we came to another little height in our ascent, there was, of course, one more above us, then another above that, than another above that, ad infinitum until, presumably, one reached the top of the mountain. These little tumbling cascades are the source of the Saco, which winds its way through the mountains of New Hampshire and the fields of Maine before emptying into the Atlantic 135 miles away. Funny to think that this mountain-top water tinkling and tumbling around us would soon make its way to the sea: balsams and white birches and solid New Hampshire granite were its companions now, soon to be replaced by sea turtles, whales, and ocean-going vessels. There were already, here and there amidst the dark green of the spruce, balsam, and birch, the shock of bright red or orange leaves-- autumn comes early to the high country. As we climbed higher up the mountain, the road below us (seemingly straight down at our feet far far down) the view expanded in front of us like a dream. It was as thrilling and exhilirating as it was unnerving: one little slip backwards and that would've been all she wrote. We thought we might see bears at some point (they're all over the North Woods) but such was not the case, although at one point my 'Spidey Sense' was tingling. We finally reached a height we didn't care to add to, rested for a bit enjoying the view and the intense beauty and quiet, then made our way back down, going through the woods instead so we wouldn't fall on the slippery wet rock. It was quite a little workout.

When we got back to the car, we continued down the Notch on Route 302, a breathtaking road, as Vonn wanted to show me an incredibly charming B & B owned by two gay men of left-leaning political persuasion (see pic above)-- he and Barry had stayed there once. It was very beautiful, replete with gardens (see pic) and a place I'd love to stay at some time. We reversed direction, reclimbed the Notch (passing the Willey House, the scene of an avalanche disaster in the early 1800's that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story 'The Ambitious Guest')then continued along 302 until we crossed into Vermont, passing once again the vast, brooding bulks of Mount Lafayette and Cannon Mountain. Before crossing into the Green Mountain State we came through the very charming hill-top town of Bethlehem, New Hampshire, which, the signs told us, is the Poetry Capital of New Hampshire. Well, now you know! I think Robert Frost, the late poet laureate who spoke at JFK's inauguration, lived here-- and how wistful and sad, really, to recall a much more enlightened time when Presidents of the United States were that educated and civil that they had poets speak at their inaugurations. From Robert Frost to My Pet Goat-- urrrgh, talk about devolution.

We headed north again once we reached 93, as Vonn wanted to show me the T.C. Moore Dam, where a part of the Connecticutt River (which forms the border between NH and Vermont)has been dammed to create this beautiful lake with mountains all round. A hydroelectric plant stands at one end, providing power for Trans Canada-- yes, we were that close to the border. Then we turned around and, after stopping in Lincoln, NH (the jumping off point for the Kangamangus Highway, one of the most beautiful in the World)for a pit stop, headed back to Vonn's, having racked up over 300 miles on our little but lovely day trip.

Here's the story on Government Whistleblowers being punished, from Forbes Magazine: what a disgusting disgrace-- while our bridges and roads collapse, and our schools go unfunded, and our people go uninsured, friends of this administration, (Halliburton, et al) unsatisfied by the billions they are already getting from us, are stealing us blind-- and woe to those heroes who bring these scurrying bugs to public view!

One after another, the men and women who have stepped forward to report corruption in the massive effort to rebuild Iraq have been vilified, fired and demoted.

Or worse.

For daring to report illegal arms sales, Navy veteran Donald Vance says he was imprisoned by the American military in a security compound outside Baghdad and subjected to harsh interrogation methods.

There were times, huddled on the floor in solitary confinement with that head-banging music blaring dawn to dusk and interrogators yelling the same questions over and over, that Vance began to wish he had just kept his mouth shut.

He had thought he was doing a good and noble thing when he started telling the FBI about the guns and the land mines and the rocket-launchers - all of them being sold for cash, no receipts necessary, he said. He told a federal agent the buyers were Iraqi insurgents, American soldiers, State Department workers, and Iraqi embassy and ministry employees.

The seller, he claimed, was the Iraqi-owned company he worked for, Shield Group Security Co.

"It was a Wal-Mart (nyse: WMT - news - people ) for guns," he says. "It was all illegal and everyone knew it."

So Vance says he blew the whistle, supplying photos and documents and other intelligence to an FBI agent in his hometown of Chicago because he didn't know whom to trust in Iraq.

For his trouble, he says, he got 97 days in Camp Cropper, an American military prison outside Baghdad that once held Saddam Hussein, and he was classified a security detainee.

Also held was colleague Nathan Ertel, who helped Vance gather evidence documenting the sales, according to a federal lawsuit both have filed in Chicago, alleging they were illegally imprisoned and subjected to physical and mental interrogation tactics "reserved for terrorists and so-called enemy combatants."

Corruption has long plagued Iraq reconstruction. Hundreds of projects may never be finished, including repairs to the country's oil pipelines and electricity system. Congress gave more than $30 billion to rebuild Iraq, and at least $8.8 billion of it has disappeared, according to a government reconstruction audit.

Despite this staggering mess, there are no noble outcomes for those who have blown the whistle, according to a review of such cases by The Associated Press.

"If you do it, you will be destroyed," said William Weaver, professor of political science at the University of Texas-El Paso and senior advisor to the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition.

"Reconstruction is so rife with corruption. Sometimes people ask me, `Should I do this?' And my answer is no. If they're married, they'll lose their family. They will lose their jobs. They will lose everything," Weaver said.

They have been fired or demoted, shunned by colleagues, and denied government support in whistleblower lawsuits filed against contracting firms.

"The only way we can find out what is going on is for someone to come forward and let us know," said Beth Daley of the Project on Government Oversight, an independent, nonprofit group that investigates corruption. "But when they do, the weight of the government comes down on them. The message is, 'Don't blow the whistle or we'll make your life hell.'

"It's heartbreaking," Daley said. "There is an even greater need for whistleblowers now. But they are made into public martyrs. It's a disgrace. Their lives get ruined."

Bunnatine "Bunny" Greenhouse knows this only too well. As the highest-ranking civilian contracting officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she testified before a congressional committee in 2005 that she found widespread fraud in multibillion-dollar rebuilding contracts awarded to former Halliburton (nyse: HAL - news - people ) subsidiary KBR (nyse: KBR - news - people ).

Soon after, Greenhouse was demoted. She now sits in a tiny cubicle in a different department with very little to do and no decision-making authority, at the end of an otherwise exemplary 20-year career.

People she has known for years no longer speak to her.

"It's just amazing how we say we want to remove fraud from our government, then we gag people who are just trying to stand up and do the right thing," she says.

In her demotion, her supervisors said she was performing poorly. "They just wanted to get rid of me," she says softly. The Army Corps of Engineers denies her claims.

"You just don't have happy endings," said Weaver. "She was a wonderful example of a federal employee. They just completely creamed her. In the end, no one followed up, no one cared."

But Greenhouse regrets nothing. "I have the courage to say what needs to be said. I paid the price," she says.

Then there is Robert Isakson, who filed a whistleblower suit against contractor Custer Battles in 2004, alleging the company - with which he was briefly associated - bilked the U.S. government out of tens of millions of dollars by filing fake invoices and padding other bills for reconstruction work.

He and his co-plaintiff, William Baldwin, a former employee fired by the firm, doggedly pursued the suit for two years, gathering evidence on their own and flying overseas to obtain more information from witnesses. Eventually, a federal jury agreed with them and awarded a $10 million judgment against the now-defunct firm, which had denied all wrongdoing.

It was the first civil verdict for Iraq reconstruction fraud.

But in 2006, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III overturned the jury award. He said Isakson and Baldwin failed to prove that the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-backed occupier of Iraq for 14 months, was part of the U.S. government.

Not a single Iraq whistleblower suit has gone to trial since.

"It's a sad, heartbreaking comment on the system," said Isakson, a former FBI agent who owns an international contracting company based in Alabama. "I tried to help the government, and the government didn't seem to care."

One way to blow the whistle is to file a "qui tam" lawsuit (taken from the Latin phrase "he who sues for the king, as well as for himself") under the federal False Claims Act.

Signed by Abraham Lincoln in response to military contractors selling defective products to the Union Army, the act allows private citizens to sue on the government's behalf.

The government has the option to sign on, with all plaintiffs receiving a percentage of monetary damages, which are tripled in these suits.

It can be a straightforward and effective way to recoup federal funds lost to fraud. In the past, the Justice Department has joined several such cases and won. They included instances of Medicare and Medicaid overbilling, and padded invoices from domestic contractors.

But the government has not joined a single quit tam suit alleging Iraq reconstruction abuse, estimated in the tens of millions. At least a dozen have been filed since 2004.

"It taints these cases," said attorney Alan Grayson, who filed the Custer Battles suit and several others like it. "If the government won't sign on, then it can't be a very good case - that's the effect it has on judges."

The Justice Department declined comment.

Most of the lawsuits are brought by former employees of giant firms. Some plaintiffs have testified before members of Congress, providing examples of fraud they say they witnessed and the retaliation they experienced after speaking up.

Julie McBride testified last year that as a "morale, welfare and recreation coordinator" at Camp Fallujah, she saw KBR exaggerate costs by double- and triple-counting the number of soldiers who used recreational facilities.

She also said the company took supplies destined for a Super Bowl party for U.S. troops and instead used them to stage a celebration for themselves.

"After I voiced my concerns about what I believed to be accounting fraud, Halliburton placed me under guard and kept me in seclusion," she told the committee. "My property was searched, and I was specifically told that I was not allowed to speak to any member of the U.S. military. I remained under guard until I was flown out of the country."

Halliburton and KBR denied her testimony.

She also has filed a whistleblower suit. The Justice Department has said it would not join the action. But last month, a federal judge refused a motion by KBR to dismiss the lawsuit.

Donald Vance, the contractor and Navy veteran detained in Iraq after he blew the whistle on his company's weapons sales, says he has stopped talking to the federal government.

Navy Capt. John Fleming, a spokesman for U.S. detention operations in Iraq, confirmed the detentions but said he could provide no further details because of the lawsuit.

According to their suit, Vance and Ertel gathered photographs and documents, which Vance fed to Chicago FBI agent Travis Carlisle for six months beginning in October 2005. Carlisle, reached by phone at Chicago's FBI field office, declined comment. An agency spokesman also would not comment.

The Iraqi company has since disbanded, according the suit.

Vance said things went terribly wrong in April 2006, when he and Ertel were stripped of their security passes and confined to the company compound.

Panicking, Vance said, he called the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where hostage experts got on the phone and told him "you're about to be kidnapped. Lock yourself in a room with all the weapons you can get your hands on.'"

The military sent a Special Forces team to rescue them, Vance said, and the two men showed the soldiers where the weapons caches were stored. At the embassy, the men were debriefed and allowed to sleep for a few hours. "I thought I was among friends," Vance said.

The men said they were cuffed and hooded and driven to Camp Cropper, where Vance was held for nearly three months and his colleague for a little more than a month. Eventually, their jailers said they were being held as security internees because their employer was suspected of selling weapons to terrorists and insurgents, the lawsuit said.

The prisoners said they repeatedly told interrogators to contact Carlisle in Chicago. "One set of interrogators told us that Travis Carlisle doesn't exist. Then some others would say, 'He says he doesn't know who you are,'" Vance said.

Released first was Ertel, who has returned to work in Iraq for a different company. Vance said he has never learned why he was held longer. His own interrogations, he said, seemed focused on why he reported his information to someone outside Iraq.

And then one day, without explanation, he was released.

"They drove me to Baghdad International Airport and dumped me," he said.

When he got home, he decided to never call the FBI again. He called a lawyer, instead.

"There's an unspoken rule in Baghdad," he said. "Don't snitch on people and don't burn bridges."

For doing both, Vance said, he paid with 97 days of his life.


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