DENVER (CN) – A federal court in Colorado heard the opening remarks Monday in a 14-day trial that will 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 believe they were fired as whistleblowers for cooperating with a military investigation that exposed base access being doled out to bring in drugs and prostitutes.
“These are folks who put their lives on the line keeping Americans safe,” said attorney John Fitzpatrick, of Wheeler, Trigg O’Donnell, describing his clients. “What is the price for putting your job on the line … (and) did Vectrus punish people for doing their jobs?”
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 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 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.
Fitzpatrick warned the panel of nine jurors that Vectrus would describe the plaintiffs as “moles, snitches, rats and snakes in the grass,” and that its legal team would paint them as disgruntled ex-employees suing for revenge.
“Plaintiffs weren’t content to just interview people and do their jobs. They wanted to be spies,” said Vectrus’ attorney, Daniel Lula of Payne & Fears based in Irvine, California. Lula argued that the plaintiffs were part of a faction that stood against their co-workers in a toxic work environment.
Moreover, Vectrus maintains that there is a good reason each employee lost his job: one mishandled classified documents, two were laid off at the primary contractor’s orders, and two were fired for harassing a co-worker.
According to an internal investigation, Victor Cejka and Jamie Lytle bullied their co-worker, Robert Redd, who speaks with a debilitative stutter. According to Lula, Cejka and Lytle were fired for the “gauntlet of harassment” they inflicted on Redd as well as the way they mocked the accents, dress and mannerisms of Afghan nationals they were supposed to be screening.
Plaintiffs James Walker and Steven Wascher weren’t actually fired—they were laid off after they turned down transfers to other air bases, according to Lula.
“The ‘whistle blowing’ was a sham,” Lula said.
As for the human resources personnel who made these calls, Lula said they knew nothing of the plaintiffs’ involvement in Operation Porch Sweep.
“If you don’t know about something, you can’t retaliate against it,” he said.
Vectrus is based in Colorado Springs, describing itself on its website as “a leading provider of global service solutions in the areas of infrastructure asset management, information technology and network communication services, and logistics and supply chain management services.”
Plaintiffs seek punitive damages for wrongful firing, whistleblower violations, outrage, and intentional interference with contract.
Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty is presiding over the case.