DENVER (CN) – After a 15-day federal trial wrapped up Monday, a panel of jurors will now determine whether five former military contractors were wrongly fired for reporting supervisors’ breaches of security at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Victor Cejka and four other security investigators contracted by Vectrus Systems Corporation said they believe they were fired for cooperating with a 2013 military investigation that exposed base access being doled out to bring in drugs and prostitutes. The trial, presided over by Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty in the U.S. District of Colorado, ended with closing arguments from both sides Monday.
“I’m going to start by reminding you who these people are … (leading) a life of achievement and success in the military, a life of achievement and success in their private employment,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Raymond Martin, of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell. “Was it just a coincidence that they all just became bad people and were fired?”
Whereas Martin punctuated each sentence with an exclamation point, Vectrus’ attorney, Daniel Lula of Payne & Fears based in Irvine, California, maintained a calm demeanor. Throughout the trial, Lula met the plaintiffs’ claims of wrongful action with patient explanations.
“I’m not going to appeal to your emotions, I’m going to appeal to your intellect and present the facts,” Lula said. “The question is very simple: did Vectrus terminate plaintiffs for what they reported to the military?”
Lula insisted that the human resource employees responsible for firing Cejka and his co-workers were so compartmentalized from the whistleblower investigation, they had no idea who was involved.
Whistleblowing aside, Lula highlighted each ex-contractor’s alleged wrongdoing: Jennifer Cross mishandled classified documents while Victor Cejka and Jamie Lytle were accused of harassing co-workers and mocking foreign born nationals who they were supposed to screen.
Lula said Steven Wascher and James Walker were applauded for their stellar service to Vectrus, but were ultimately laid off at a directive from primary contractor Fluor, an engineering and construction firm, because they were the least senior security investigators and had turned down an offer for reassignment.
“Plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden to prove they were terminated for whistleblowing conduct, because that’s not what happened,” Lula said.
While delivering the plaintiff’s final statement, attorney John Fitzpatrick implored the jury to use common sense and called Vectrus’ plea of ignorance a downright lie.
“Even if you thought they (Vectrus) were lying, they (say they) had a good reason, but their whole thing is a lie,” Fitzpatrick said. “What’s motivating them, is it money, or what?”
In their 2015 complaint, the plaintiffs said they considered themselves “highly trained and experienced security investigators,” conducting interviews and gathering data for the Pentagon’s Biometric Automated Toolset database. The military uses the database to log identifying features such as iris scans and fingerprints to track suspected terrorists, insurgents and other wanted people.
It was also their job to vet the 6,000 local and third-country nationals who entered the U.S.’s largest air base in Afghanistan each day, in a hostile territory where even an unauthorized cell phone might double as a detonation device.
At Bagram, the plaintiffs “discovered that a group of Vectrus employees were engaged in illegal and illicit activities that endangered the safety and security of those stationed at BAF.”
The complaint continues: “Among other things, this cabal of Vectrus employees engaged in altering and deleting information in the U.S. Government’s biometric data system used for the tracking and identification of individuals and potential insurgents, selling of classified information for personal gain, taking improper actions to protect a Turkish contractor including interfering with investigations and giving advance warning of raids by the military, controlling drugs, alcohol and prostitutes on the military base, and transferring or terminating employees who would not cooperate with their illegal activities.”
The plaintiffs said they believe their concerns were confirmed in 2013 when the military conducted Operation Porch Sweep, a base-wide raid that resulted in the arrest of eight Vectrus employees and their removal from the country.
“Vectrus didn’t have any reason to retaliate because they kept their contract, life went on,” Lula said in closing. “There was no grand plan to ferret out the whistleblowers—there was only the desire to get back to work.”
Based in Colorado Springs, private security firm Vectrus earned $1.1 billion in 2017 and has about $1.4 billion worth of contracts in the pipeline, according to its a 2018 an internal investment report. On top of eight existing Air Force and Army contracts running through 2034, Vectrus recently secured a sixth $84 million contract with Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.
Vectrus also has an eye on an $8.2 billion Army contract providing combat support over the next 10 years.
This is not Vectrus’ first employment lawsuit. Throughout 2016, several employees filed lawsuits over gender discrimination and sexual assault, two of which said they believed they were terminated in retaliation for raising issues with management. The two federal lawsuits were settled out of court.
Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty is presiding over the case. When their deliberation is complete, the jury will decide whether the plaintiffs were wrongfully terminated and whether to award punitive damages as well as compensation for lost wages.