Fraud, embezzlement allegations surround union officials at veterans hospital

The union has responded to a subpoena for information by a grand jury in Detroit, The Detroit News reported in Monday editions.
An internal investigation by the national union determined that Belinda Steele, former financial secretary of Local 933, inappropriately took funds. The probe also determined that former local president Chetham Brazill and former treasurer John Spillman similarly misused union funds.
Steve Cohen, an attorney for the former officers, dismissed the allegations.
"This is a political fight. The record-keeping is not what you would want in a perfect world," Cohen told The News. "But these people are not wealthy people. They have not profited at the hands of their brothers and sisters."
In January, John Gage, AFGE's national president, banned Brazill from holding union office for five years. Spillman and Steele were barred for life. Three other officers received one-year suspensions. Cohen is appealing those actions.
Union investigators found problems including:
--Local 933 fell more than $50,000 behind in forwarding dues to the national organization, leaving many workers who had paid their full dues considered to be not in good standing.
--The local fell more than $40,000 behind in paying insurance premiums deducted from members' paychecks to Colonial Life, which nevertheless continued providing coverage to union members.
--For at least five years, some union officers cashed checks from Colonial Life for "administrative fees" that were never included in Local 933's financial records.
"We've had a horrible experience, but we have a lot of people bringing us back together," said the current local president, William Scott. "We're not in the red anymore. We've made arrangements with all our creditors."

Feds probe claims of union fraud
An investigation of hospital staff's local focuses on allegations of embezzlement and lax financial oversight.
By Ronald J. Hansen / The Detroit News
Federal authorities are investigating fraud and embezzlement allegations against the former top officers of a local union that represents nearly 1,200 workers at the John Dingell Veterans Hospital in Detroit.
Records for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 933 obtained by The Detroit News outline years of lax financial oversight at the local, which represents hospital employees ranging from janitors to nurses.
The union has responded to a subpoena for information by a grand jury in Detroit, union records show.
An internal investigation by the national AFGE determined that Belinda Steele, the former financial secretary, inappropriately took funds. The union also found Chetham Brazill, the former president of the local, and John Spillman, the former treasurer, responsible for similar mismanagement.
Steve Cohen, an attorney for the former officers, dismissed the allegations, saying the new union leadership has overstated the imperfect filing system of his predecessor.
"This is a political fight. The record-keeping is not what you would want in a perfect world," Cohen said. "But these people are not wealthy people. They have not profited at the hands of their brothers and sisters."
In January, John Gage, national president of the AFGE, banned Brazill from holding union office for five years. Spillman and Steele were barred for life. Three other officers received one-year suspensions. Cohen is appealing those administrative actions.
The alleged theft and administrative lapses have left the union in debt, making it less aggressive in defending its members and with less clout in national union affairs, said the current local president, William Scott.
"We've had a horrible experience," he said, "but we have a lot of people bringing us back together."
At the request of the union's members, the Detroit accounting firm of George Johnson & Co. reviewed some of the local's financial records after Brazill left his post in December 2002. The accountants found tens of thousands of dollars in questionable spending.
They also uncovered two unauthorized personal loans to three union officers from the employees' credit union. This led to an investigation by members of the local.
Among the financial problems revealed by union investigators:
• The union had fallen more than $50,000 behind in paying membership dues to the national organization. Unknown to workers who had paid their full dues, many of them were not considered in good standing with the union. This also meant the union's membership was undercounted, weakening its overall position in the organization.
• The union had fallen more than $40,000 behind in paying insurance premiums to Colonial Life even though the money had been deducted from members' paychecks all along. The insurer continued to provide coverage to members despite the debt.
• For at least five years, some union officers cashed checks from Colonial Life for "administrative fees" that had never been recorded in the organization's financial records. For two of those years, the payments totaled almost $25,000.
• In December 2002, Brazill and other union officers split $7,000 in stipends even after the membership had specifically voted against the stipends.
Federal authorities would typically have an interest in the case, in part because employees of a veterans' hospital receive their checks from the U.S. Treasury Department.
James Shaw, a medical clerk who has been with the hospital for 11 years, said he was surprised the union's problems went undetected for so long.
"I want to know where is our money that we put into the union? I am concerned about this," Shaw said.
High bills, incomplete records
The local's investigators, who are hospital employees, noted they were "overwhelmed and stunned" by the abuse of the members' funds, according to their final report.
During Brazill's tenure, union officers withdrew $126,000 without proper documentation, the union investigators found.
Between July 1999 and December 2002, Spillman and Steele rang up $38,000 in credit card debts, some of which have no apparent connection to union business, according to Scott, the current president of the local.
Credit card invoices reviewed by The News show that union dues paid $6,600 to a Southfield travel agency and $140 to a Chatham, Ontario, inn. The investigators could not tie the trip to any known union business.
Other questionable expenses included $539 for airline tickets listed for a person who was not a union member. The union also paid $130 to a shop at Ford Field the day of a Lions football game, $49 to the Pontiac Silverdome and $109 to a bowling alley in Livonia.
Additionally, Spillman and Steele piled up $2,800 in late fees, finance charges and fees for exceeding their credit limit, records show.
The three national union officials found Steele, Spillman and Daniel Lyle, the second vice president, improperly obtained a pair of loans from the employees' credit union worth $32,000. Union investigators noted that Brazill, Steele and Spillman all held committee positions with the credit union.
During the union trial last year, Steele said one of the loans was for a picnic and the other was to pay back dues to the national union, records show.
The committee that judged the case questioned both loans.
"There was no evidence that the general membership was informed, voted or approved the loan or expenditures of $10,000 for a picnic," their decision said. "Nothing was provided to evidence that $22,000 was actually sent to the national or acknowledgement by the national of receiving these funds."
The union paid $6,205 in interest costs on the loans, records show.
Cohen, the attorney for the former officers, said the trial was conducted in a haphazard way that didn't allow for all witnesses to testify. Also, the legal basis for the judges' rulings was unclear, he said.
There were other questionable transactions.
Steele acknowledged in a May 2003 letter to Scott, the local president, that she and others pocketed checks occasionally labeled "administrative fees" paid to the union by the Colonial Life insurance company.
He insisted that the union's previous officers and members had approved the practice, though union investigators could not find such approval.
Steele maintained in her letter that she and the others who did bookkeeping work on the Colonial account cashed the checks because the union, as a nonprofit organization, couldn't receive the money itself.
Still, the checks were made out to the union by Colonial. It is unclear whether Colonial or any of the union workers declared the administrative fees as compensation for tax purposes.
In 2001 and 2002, Colonial paid $24,936 in "administrative fees" to the union, according to a letter by the insurer. Steele's letter said that she split the fees with three others, including Spillman.
The union estimated that the local had fallen more than $60,000 behind on insurance premiums though the money had been withheld from members' checks. Scott, the current local president, said the union is now current with its insurer.
The union also fell behind $23,000 in legal fees.
Years of weak oversight
The audit and the internal review make clear that for years the union had weak oversight of its financial affairs. For example, officers billed the union nearly $60,000 for conferences, travel expenses and training, but rarely detailed where they went or when, the internal review noted.
One travel expense that was documented suggests a lavish lifestyle by the former administration. The union rented 20 rooms at a local hotel during the AFGE 2001 Christmas party in Dearborn. Union rules prohibit hotel stays for local trips, and rank and file was not invited to the hotel, Scott said.
The national committee that tried the officers also identified $20,094 in "unexplained cash-out transactions that were withheld from deposits to union savings and checking accounts" between 1998 and 2003. "There were no checks and balances in place to monitor or ensure ... that (Steele's) expenditures were properly approved and documented," the committee wrote.
Throughout, the local union consistently paid less to the national union in dues than it withheld from members' paychecks, the local's investigators found.
This only came to light after a member of the union inquired about her status in the national ranks and learned that she was not in good standing, union officials say. Investigators found that national dues for some employees had not been paid for years.
This left the local with less clout in national matters because votes are based on the number of members in each chapter.
"We're not in the red anymore," said Scott, the local president. "We've made arrangements with all our creditors." Additionally, the national union is seeking to erase the debts by having a Maryland insurer pay the bond money originally posted for each of the former officers.
The debts the union now faces contrast with the $66,000 surplus that Brazill inherited when he entered office.
Brazill, a plasterer by trade, was elected president of the local in 1997 and re-elected in 1999, the same year the local's members voted to extend the president's two-year terms by a year.
The national union eventually determined the term change should have begun in 2001. But the officials didn't resolve the dispute until 2002 when Brazill was six months into an additional year.
In an effort to avoid problems, the union's chief attorney ordered Brazill and the executive board members of the Detroit union to allow rank and file to vote on all nonbudgeted expenses during the extended terms.
Records show this didn't always happen, however.

Weather blamed for poor turnout at rolling rally
By Michael Goot and Jason Howe
Staff Writers
[email protected]
[email protected]

KITTERY, Maine — Some 500 people withstood steady rain to express their support for keeping the national’s oldest shipyard — and the jobs of the 4,000 people that work there.

Shipyard workers, family, friends and dignitaries from both Maine and New Hampshire held a rally in front of Gate 1 of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The event was culmination of a “rolling rally” that started earlier in the day in Rochester, N.H., and in Biddeford and proceeded to Prescott Park before crossing the Piscataqua.
Many in the crowd wore bright yellow T-shirts with the “Save Our Shipyard” Seacoast Shipyard Association message on the front and on the back the words “PNS sets the Navy standard — cost, quality, schedule and safety” on the back.

“This is the very best shipyard in the nation and it does not deserve to be closed,” said Paul O’Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has indicated he wants to close as many as 25 percent of the nation’s military installations during this round of the Base Realignment and Closure process. The list of recommended base closures is due to be released May 13 — less than three weeks away.

O’Connor attempted to fire up the crowd by asking people if they have read news accounts stating private yards could do the work being done at the shipyard. He said private yards like Electric Boat and Newport News have hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns.

“They’re underachieving. At the same time, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has delivered six subs ahead of schedule and under cost,” he said.

“Do you think that the private sector is more efficient?” he asked to a resounding “No!” from the crowd.

O’Connor said the shipyard is really the brains of the Navy’s submarine program because shipyard employees go to other yards to train workers.

“To close Portsmouth would be to perform a lobotomy on the Navy’s nuclear repair, maintenance and modernization program. We will not allow that to happen,” he said.

O’Connor also dispelled the assertions the shipyard would not be needed because the navy is phasing out its Los Angeles class nuclear submarines. Shipyard workers are easily adaptable to perform work on other subs, he said.

Politicians speak

Maine Gov. John Baldacci also roused the crowd by telling them not to focus on the weather, but rather the men and women of the shipyard. “I didn’t come all the way down here for a light rally. Are we going to let a little rain stop us?” he said. “The least we can do is stand out here in the rain for all those families.”

Baldacci said he is optimistic about the yard’s chances and remembered during the last BRAC process, he spoke with a Navy official who recounted the high quality of work performed by shipyard employees.

“These are the best workers in the country and as long as these workers want to stay here, the yard’s going to stay here,” Baldacci said.

The Maine and New Hampshire delegations were united at the rally and Baldacci said it is a total team effort. “They’re going to have to come through us first before they take our yard away from us,” he said.

Both of Maine’s U.S. senators also appeared at the rally. “You know John Paul Jones said we have not begun to fight.,” said Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe. “We have begun to fight. Maine and New Hampshire are locked in solidarity.”

Although the shipyard is not as close to the Pentagon as some of the other facilities that could be closed, Snowe said the delegation will make sure the message gets to Washington loud and clear that the work done at the shipyard is second to none. “You are the gold standard,” she said.

Snowe added that because shipyard employees have completed work under budget and ahead of schedule, they have saved taxpayers $25 million.

She said if people had a business that was performing work under budget and turning a profit, would they consider closing it. They answer would be a resounding “no.”

Snowe’s fellow Sen. Susan Collins asked a series of questions: “Who sets the standard for cost? Who sets the standard for quality? Who sets the standard for schedule? Who sets the standard for safety.”

To each question, the crowd yelled “Portsmouth” in reply.

U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, said the entire congressional delegation has to say a big “thank you” to all the shipyard employees who have performed exceedingly well in the last six years.

“You don’t close the best shipyard in the country,” he said.

The rally closed out with shipyard worker Jim Freda singing a song about the shipyard.

Rain clouds

Many in the crowd had stayed been out in the elements for two hours and had gathered at Prescott Park for the Seacoast portion of the march.

Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce President Dick Ingram led the Prescott Park portion of the rally, complete with bullhorn. He said keeping the shipyard open makes sense from a business standpoint.

“In business, when you’re the best at what you do, you get more work, not less,” he said.

U.S. Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., also said the shipyard is a vital part of the nation’s security infrastructure and should be preserved.

State Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, read a proclamation on behalf of Gov. John Lynch declaring Saturday “Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Day.”

“The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is the only naval shipyard with a full spectrum of nuclear and diesel submarine maintenance experience, including reactor servicing, overhaul, modernization, testing and emergent repair. ... The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s work force is highly skilled with unique talents that cannot be replicated elsewhere,” she said.

After the brief rally, about 200 people walked across the Memorial Bridge to join the Kittery forces in front of the shipyard as bagpipers and drummers played patriotic songs. Passing cars honked their horns to show their support.

Some were disappointed with the relatively low turnout, which could be blamed on the weather.

“I’m sure it had a negative impact on the size of the crowd. We got a pretty nice crowd all things considered,” said Dennis Lauze of Strafford, N.H..

Lauze, who has worked for 28 years at the shipyard, said he worries about the economic spinoff benefits the shipyard provides that will go away if the shipyard is not there. He thinks it could be in the millions of dollars. It is not the same as when Pease Air Force Base closed, he said.

“These are heavy industrial jobs. Pease was not heavy industrial jobs. It was just support for the Air Force,” he said.

Also, there is the “human capital,” not just at work, but at the many volunteer organizations throughout the community.

Lauze said maybe the biggest problem is the shipyard sometimes gets overlooked. People may not recognize its value until they have to go through this closure process.

“Nobody thinks about this place. ... I’m not sure if you polled 100 people, 50 could be able to tell you what goes on here,” he said.

Shipyard worker Arvard Worster and his wife Carol of Farmington, N.H., also participated in the rally. Worster has been at the shipyard for 34 years and serves as president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

He said he is optimistic the shipyard will stay off the list based on the work ethic of its workers and experience. He said he believes the U.S. Navy is too thin as it is.

“The Navy has already cut four shipyards in the past. Why would they be looking at cutting more?” he said.

Another shipyard employee, Rick Davis of Wolfeboro, N.H., said it would not make sense for the shipyard to close. “It’s a little twisted to be on a list when you’re the best at what you do,” he said.

Bob Moreau of Wells, who has worked for the shipyard for 30 years, said he believes there are things working in the shipyard’s favor, including the level of experience of its employees.

“Once you lose it, you never get it back,” he said. “It’s really a gold mine for the government.”

Starting line

The rolling rally kicked off earlier in the day with about 50 people who attended the Rochester Community Center.

The turnout was not quite what some had hoped for, but many of the three generations of shipyard employees present said they hoped the rally would pick up supporters as it traveled south to Portsmouth and on to Kittery.

“I don’t think people even really realize just what the yard means to this area, or the state, but when it closes, they’ll feel the loss,” 57-year-old Mike Lagueux said as people milled about the center’s gymnasium.

Lagueux is a logistics management specialist and will have worked for the shipyard for 28 years this October, after starting off in the yard’s apprentice program as a welder and machinist in 1977.

“There is a huge contingent of people from Rochester, and even from Dover and Somersworth, that work that the yard. There are people who work there now that have had family there for three generations. It is a place that is the biggest source of business in this area,” Lagueux said.

Lagueux and his wife, Nancy, say they are worried about what the closure would mean to coming generations and to businesses that may not yet realize how drastically the yard’s closure will affect local business.

“This is about the future too. I’ll be retiring in two years, but there are generations coming up that depend on it for income,” Lagueux said.

Patrick Hanscome is one of many in those generations.

Hanscome could well be a mirror image of Lagueux 28 years earlier, and is afraid of what the closure will mean to his dreams of a family.

“I’m in the apprentice program as a welder right now. If the yard closes, all the hopes and goals that my wife and I have will have to be put on hold,” he said.

That concern is shared by Patrick’s wife, Jackie, who just graduated college with a degree in architectural engineering technology.

“We want to have a house, a family, a life. You know? This would put all that on hold,” Jackie Hanscome.

Like so many others, Patrick Hanscome’s family ties to the shipyard goes back to his grandfather, who spent much of his career building ships there.

Lagueux and Hanscome are just two of 359 shipyard employees that live in Rochester, along with 287 from Dover and 172 from Somersworth.

Area officials are worried not only for the lives of those employed at the yard, but what the loss of incomes, direct contracts and secondary business will mean to local economies.

“We have a study that says the loss in wages alone for Rochester, Somersworth and Dover will be 47-point-2 million dollars. That doesn’t include the secondary impacts,” Alan Davis, chairman for the Rochester Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Committee.

He cited an Employment Security New Hampshire study that estimates the secondary job loss at 2,700 positions, with a net loss of $133.8 million dollars in New Hampshire alone.

“We are talking about companies, like Waste Management and Eastern Propane locally, that rely on the shipyard for contracts. With that, you have a loss of income in the area, which causes loss of revenues for local business, and ultimately, more loss of jobs,” Davis said prior to speeches by elected officials from the three cities.

Mayors David Walker of Rochester, Jim McLin of Somersworth and Dover Mayor Pro Tem Jason Hindle addressed those gathered for the rally’s start.

Each reiterated the need to write to congressmen and senators in Washington with requests to keep what they called “the best shipyard around” open for years to come.

Union files suit with city
By CONNIE PARISH, Times Staff Writer
A union at the Eisenhower Veterans Affairs Medical Center and its president have filed a lawsuit against the city of Leavenworth in connection with an agreement earlier this year to provide fire service to the VA.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court by Overland Park attorney Michael Schultz on behalf of Local No. 85, American Federation of Government Employees, and its president, Debra McDougal.
Detailed in the complaint is the history of negotiations by VA officials with city officials to provide fire protection at the Leavenworth VA campus.
City commissioners voted 3-2 on Jan. 11 to OK the agreement, which provides the city with funding for six additional firefighters. The larger number was needed to meet the VA's regulations for fire protection.
Until that time, the VA operated its own fire department, and several of those employees were union members, the lawsuit notes.
It reads, in part, "the city's performance of the contract may result in deteriorating fire protection services for city residents and property owners, an increase in taxes or both. It also may result in the termination or dislocation of federal employees who are members of the union."
The lawsuit includes three claims for relief. The first notes that the city's imposition of a charge on the VA hospital for the services "constitutes an illegal tax or fee in lieu of a tax, which is pre-empted under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution."
That argument was made at several city meetings, and VA officials contend an undersecretary's ruling on allowing salaries for firefighters supersedes that.
The lawsuit also alleges a conflict of interest by Brian Grittmann, who was mayor when the agreement was signed. Grittmann was one of three voting for it; commissioners Larry Dedeke and Phil Urban voted against it.
The lawsuit contends Grittmann's vote was a conflict of interest because he "is an employee of the federal government and works as an accounting systems analyst for the Department of Defense."
The third claim for relief is what is called "unconstitutional delegation of power." The lawsuit says the contract permits the VA to extend the contract, at its option for four successive years following the base year, "at the complete discretion of the VA hospital."
Bob Beall, attorney for the city of Leavenworth, said he had no comment about the pending litigation.

Budget cuts cost border security
No new agents next year

Sheldon Alberts
CanWest News Service

Saturday, April 23, 2005
'You can't just fortify one tiny part of the border and expect all the criminals and terrorists to cross through that small corridor' --T.J. Bonner, National Border Patrol Council
WASHINGTON -Immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan dramatized his country's concerns about lax security on the Canada-U.S. border by holding up an orange traffic cone.
It was the only line of defence, he said, at some unmanned checkpoints along the 49th parallel.
Three-and-a-half years later, budget belt-tightening has forced a virtual freeze on hiring new U.S. Border Patrol agents along the northern border, despite a long-standing shortage and new legislation mandating sharp increases over the next five years.
The budget President George W. Bush recently submitted to Congress contains funding to hire only 210 new border agents next year -- and none of them are headed for duty along the Canada-U.S. boundary.
"Those 210 agents will most likely be placed on the southern border this year," Jeffrey Benadum, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol in Washington, confirmed in an interview.
"We would love the full funding for all the agents. Is that going to happen? It has yet to be determined."
The funding shortfall has angered both Democratic and Republican congressmen, who passed legislation in December to double the number of border patrol agents by 2010.
The Intelligence Reform & Prevention of Terrorism Act, signed into law by Mr. Bush, requires the hiring "of not less than 2,000" full-time agents each year from 2006 to 2010. The bill also states that 20% of the new hires each year -- or 400 -- were to be assigned to the Canada-U.S. boundary.
But the bill's hiring requirements were deemed "subject to available appropriations." This loophole allowed the President extensive leeway as he prepared his budget.
"For too long, northern border security has received too little support when it comes to federal resources," said Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, who this week introduced legislation that would mandate the Homeland Security department to hire a special northern border co-ordinator.
Meanwhile, frustrated border agents claim the manpower shortage means that deserted stretches of the border will remain unpatrolled.
"You can't just fortify one tiny part of the border and expect all the criminals and terrorists to cross through that small corridor," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing 10,000 field agents.
About 1,000 border patrol agents are assigned to the Canadian border. That's double the number stationed on the northern border before 9/11. But at any given time, only about 250 are on duty, says Mr. Bonner.
Of more than 1.16 million people detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents in 2004, only 9,959 were caught trying to enter the country illegally from Canada.
However, there are major problems with marijuana smuggling, human smuggling and other criminal activity.
"When you do a risk assessment, you have to put the U.S.-Canada border right up there with the wide expanses of unprotected borders that place us at great risk for anyone to infiltrate," Mr. Bonner said.
The Bush administration argues the addition of 200 more agents this year is enough to because new surveillance technology requires fewer people in remote border regions.
But recent U.S. government investigations found severe flaws in the Border Patrol's Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, a network of cameras and sensors along the Mexican and Canadian borders.
Many of the high-tech cameras along the border between Washington state and British Columbia were so poorly wired they were virtually useless, even in warm weather.
In addition, plans to test unmanned aerial surveillance planes along the Canadian border have been put on hold until the completion of a congressional review into their usefulness.
The staff shortages and technology problems have left some U.S. lawmakers red-faced, particularly those who have harshly criticized Canada for failing to spend enough on border security.
Only this week, Republican congressman Mark Souder, a member of the House of Representatives' homeland security committee, blasted Canada's border protection efforts. He warned the country had become a "junior partner" in the fight to protect the continent from terror.
"This is our problem. If we are worried about who is coming into the United States, I don't think we can rely on foreign nations to solve our problems for us," Mr. Bonner said.
Colin Kenny, Liberal chairman of the Canadian Senate's defence committee, turned the tables on U.S. lawmakers during meetings this week in Washington.
"We have regularly drawn to their attention the disproportionate proportion of resources they have put on the southern border compared to the northern border," Mr. Kenny said.
"We have been encouraging them to improve it."

Border agents at risk
Flaws found in body armor, replacements scarce
Susan Carroll
Republic Tucson Bureau
Apr. 23, 2005 12:00 AM
Thousands of U.S. Border Patrol agents are wearing bulletproof vests that are potentially defective or past their expiration dates, increasing their risk of injury or death.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said replacing roughly 8,000 vests remains a priority but acknowledged significant delays because of "wartime issues." U.S. Armor Corp., the California-based company that contracted with the government, said the war in Iraq led to high demand for materials, delaying the production of the new Kevlar vests ordered in 2004.

In the meantime, some Border Patrol agents are wearing vests made with Zylon and manufactured by Second Chance Body Armor Inc., a company sued last year by Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard amid allegations that the vests deteriorated more rapidly than advertised. Other vests used by Border Patrol agents are made from Kevlar, a longer-lasting material, but are past their recommended replacement date.

"The bottom line is that we have agents running around with vests that expired two years ago and some that are probably not working at all," said Brian Henderson, health and safety director for the National Border Patrol Council, based in San Diego.

Border Patrol agents' vests wear down even faster than those of other law enforcement officers because exposure to heat, ultraviolet rays and sweat accelerate their deterioration, Henderson said. Kevlar vests typically are considered safe for about five years. No deaths or injuries of agents have been directly linked to a substandard vest, officials said.

Mario Villarreal, Customs and Border Protection spokesman in Washington, D.C., said agents from across the country were fitted for the new vests from July through December. The agency plans to distribute more than 1,000 in May and about 350 to 500 each month after that, he added.

In the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, the busiest illegal-crossing corridor along the 1,950-mile Southwestern border, more than 1,700 of the 2,100 agents are waiting for new vests, officials said. The agency has reported a sharp increase in the number of assaults and shootings in southern Arizona's bustling smuggling corridors, with 15 in the past six months, compared with four in the year-earlier period.

Mike Nicley, Tucson Sector chief, said that protecting agents remains the agency's top priority and stressed that although the vests are past the recommended replacement date, they do not immediately disintegrate.

"Don't get me wrong, we need to replace those vests when the manufacturer says they're in danger of expiring, but they're telling me I don't have any Border Patrol agents out there whose vests won't stop a bullet," Nicley said.

Villarreal added that the new vests, made with Kevlar, are "outstanding" quality, designed to weather the extreme conditions along the Southwestern border. Still, they will need to be replaced in about five years.

George Olsen, general manager for U.S. Armor, said the company struggled with a "material shortage" because of the war in Iraq but is prepared to ship 3,000 vests by this time next month, the majority earmarked for Arizona. He would not provide the cost of the contract with the federal government, and Villarreal could not provide that information.

Until the federal government signed the new contract in 2004, agents were given an allowance to select a bulletproof vest from one of five companies, according to the Border Patrol.

Some agents selected vests made by Michigan-based Second Chance Body Armor with a synthetic product known as Zylon, touted as the strongest man-made fiber.

In 2004, Goddard joined at least a half-dozen other state attorneys general and sued the company, charging that it violated consumer fraud laws by telling buyers its products would provide protection for five years. One lawsuit blames the company in the shooting death of a California police officer. A lawsuit by Utah resulted in a $210,000 settlement.

When the problems surfaced in 2003, an estimated 3,000 Arizona law officers were using Zylon-based vests. None was injured or killed because of the product defect. Phoenix police offered its officers up to $500 each to replace the vests, and other agencies across the state have phased out Zylon vests.

Andrea Esquer, Goddard's spokeswoman, said the state's lawsuit is still pending. The company has filed for bankruptcy protection, and officials could not be reached for comment Friday. Second Chance, the country's largest body-armor manufacturer for law enforcement, pulled its Zylon products and offered warranty protection or inserts to fortify the product.

Henderson said that after the problems with Zylon were revealed, Second Chance sent the Border Patrol panels to insert into the vests to reinforce them. But, he said, many agents reported the added material made the vests bulky and uncomfortable. Border Patrol officials had no estimate for the number of Zylon vests still in use along the nation's borders. .

DoD Unions Fight Implementation of New Personnel System

By Brian Rikuda
WI Contributing Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page 12

If Curtis Mitchell and thousands of other Department of Defense (DoD) workers have any say, the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) will not come to fruition. Mitchell, who works with the DoD as an aircraft painter and mediator at Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is also a member of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee union, which for the past year has been fighting against the implementation of the Defense Department’s controversial new personnel system.

The NSPS, scheduled for implementation this coming July, was officially jumpstarted when Congress passed the Department of Defense’s proposed Defense Transformation Act in November 2003.

Under the Defense Transformation Act, the DoD proposed to implement the NSPS to provide a “more flexible personnel management system.” The DoD argues that with a more flexible system in place, the department will be a more competitive and progressive employer. Currently, the DoD argues that it is difficult to keep pace with the country’s increasing national security demands without having a system that allows the department to be a more competitive and attractive employer.

The NSPS proposes to restructure the current pay system, base pay increases on performance, streamline the current hiring process and implement faster procedures for addressing performance problems.

While DoD claims the NSPS is founded in the interest of national security, critics of the system argue that it violates the fundamental rights of federal workers. This is of particular concern to African Americans because minorities currently compose 40 percent of the federal workforce and almost a third of the civilian DoD workforce.
Though it already received its green light from Congress, union workers have not given up on their fight to prevent the implementation of NSPS. This past February, AFGE and nine other DoD unions filed suit against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Office of Personnel Management acting director Dan Blair. The suit claims that Rumsfeld, Blair and the DoD failed to follow the directives of Congress and did not work with union workers to develop the new personnel system.

Andrea Brooks, National Vice President of AFGE’s Women and Fair Practices division, fears that NSPS will actually hurt national security by taking away workers rights, lowering pay and destroying a system to report problems.

“The NSPS eliminates the checks and balances where the employees who could report fraud waste and abuse, are less protected,” Brooks said. “This concentrates power in the hands of a very few people and could enable [them] to divert enormous funds of money from the treasury to a favored few corporations.”

Matt Biggs, Legislative and Political Director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), is another vocal opponent of NSPS.

“NSPS is ideologically driven by the [Bush] administration,” Biggs said. “The three main things that [NSPS] is aimed at is taking away the collective bargaining and civil service rights of federal workers, killing the unions and getting rid of the federal workers so they can funnel the work to the contractors that supported their campaign.”

With the July implementation date quickly approaching, many union representatives are working overtime to slow the implementation. Biggs said, “We realize we are going to suffer some losses of rights here at the end of the day, but we are hopeful we can extend the tide of that until we get a new administration in so we can revisit this issue real soon.”

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