David Phinney's groundbreaking story on Slogger last week, which exposed labor abuses by First Kuwaiti, the company building the US embassy in Baghdad, is leading to further coverage in the mainstream media.
New information on the DoJ investigation into First Kuwaiti is revealed in a new piece by Yochi Dreazen of the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.).
The DoJ declined to confirm or deny the investigation Phinney reported about last week, and First Kuwaiti obviously claimed no knowledge of it, but Dreazen confirmed it through multiple other sources.
As Dreazen's sources report, the investigation is "probing allegations that foreign employees were brought to work on the massive project against their will and prevented from leaving the country."
Of the two main sources for the DoJ investigation into First Kuwaiti, Dreazen writes:
Mr. Owens and Rory Mayberry, a second American who had worked for--and, unlike Mr. Owens, was fired by--First Kuwaiti, submitted written accounts of alleged labor trafficking and mistreatment of First Kuwaiti's foreign work force to U.S. officials late last year. They also have had frequent email and telephone conversations with the officials in recent months, according to the people familiar with the case.
Mr. Owens has filed a separate False Claims Act lawsuit against First Kuwaiti, alleging that the company overcharged the U.S. government and failed to properly install many of the embassy's security fortifications, according to a copy of the sealed complaint reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The False Claims Act allows private citizens to file suit alleging the government was defrauded, and to receive a portion of any penalties levied against a defendant.
The contours of the probe were detailed by government officials with direct knowledge of it, as well as by Mr. Owens and others who have been contacted by prosecutors. Several government officials said the inquiry had accelerated in recent weeks, but they said it is unclear when, or if, prosecutors would bring criminal or civil charges.
Owens and Mayberry both also report that they reached out to government officials after witnessing numerous scenes of deception and mistreatment of construction workers by First Kuwaiti.
Mr. Owens, who had supervised construction of the embassy building, said he was waiting for a First Kuwaiti charter flight to Iraq in March 2006 when he noticed that the Pakistani and West African workers held boarding passes for Dubai. He asked a First Kuwaiti official about the discrepancy, and said he was told it was a way to get the workers past Kuwaiti customs. Mr. Owens, who lives in the U.S., assumed the workers knew they were going to Iraq, he said.
Mr. Mayberry, the second former employee, said he himself had been given a boarding pass marked for Dubai on a First Kuwaiti charter flight that he knew was bound for Baghdad. "It was the first sign that something was a bit off with the company," he says.
A former Army medical technician who was hired to run the site's infirmary, Mr. Mayberry later wrote to U.S. military and civilian officials alleging that First Kuwaiti ran a dirty, dilapidated medical facility that lacked running water and needed supplies.
Mr. Owens, meanwhile, said he began to hear dozens of workers complain that they had been told they would be sent to Dubai and Kuwait, not Iraq. Later, he said he saw a large safe that contained the passports of hundreds of workers. He alleged the company began confiscating passports after 70 Filipinos fled in search of other work in Iraq.
Mr. Owens resigned, according to his statements in the sealed False Claims Act complaint, "because he could no longer countenance this misconduct" by First Kuwaiti.
Mr. Mayberry, who now is in Oregon, was fired by the company less than a week after he arrived in Iraq after the company criticized his medical skills. He questions the timing of the dismissal, though, since he says it came almost immediately after he began complaining about the infirmary conditions.
"I felt bad for those folks every day that I was in Iraq, and the feelings just built and built," Mr. Owens said in an interview. "They were basically being treated like slaves."