A US company that was paid nearly $700 million to secure an Iraqi base for F-16 fighter jets turned a blind eye to alcohol smuggling, theft, security violations, and allegations of sex trafficking, then terminated investigators who uncovered wrongdoing, an Associated Press investigation has found.
Documents and interviews with two former internal investigators and a half-dozen former or current Sallyport Global staff describe schemes at Iraq's Balad Air Base that were major contract violations at best and, if proven, illegal.
The fired investigators, Robert Cole and Kristie King, said they uncovered evidence that Sallyport employees were involved in human trafficking for prostitution. Staff on base routinely flew smuggled alcohol onto the base in such high volumes that a plane once seesawed on the tarmac under the weight. Rogue militia stole enormous generators using flatbed trucks and a 60-foot crane, driving right past Sallyport security guards.
The trouble stretches to headquarters in Reston, Virginia, say the investigators and other ex-employees interviewed by Associated Press. They say what they uncovered was not revealed to the US government, which was footing the $686 million contracting bill, until early this year, after an auditor started asking questions.
The investigators were fired abruptly on March 12, just two months ago, and immediately flown out of Iraq. They say they had been looking into timesheet fraud allegations and were set to interview company managers, whom they considered suspects.
Sallyport said it follows all contracting rules at the base, home to a squadron of F-16s that are indispensable to the operations of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group.
"Sallyport has a strong record of providing security and life support services in challenging war zones like Iraq and plays a major but unheralded role in the war against IS," Chief Operating Officer Matt Stuckart wrote. "The company takes any suggestion of wrongdoing at Balad very seriously."
In one allegation, informants told the investigators that "flight line" staff, who directed airplanes on the runways and handled cargo, were showing up drunk. At one point they passed around a bowl of gummy bears soaked in vodka.
Alcohol on base was restricted, but the booze was everywhere, smuggled in by plane, several former employees told the Associated Press. According to investigative documents and witnesses, empty suitcases were loaded onto Baghdad-bound roundtrip flights. The bags returned packed with alcohol-filled plastic water bottles that skirted security, a significant risk in a war zone.
On July 13, 2015, four F-16s landed at the base, the first of a planned 36 from the US Trouble came within 24 hours, when a long skid mark appeared on the tarmac, stopping about 45 yards from a jet in the "no-go area."
A truck driver had lost control of his vehicle, but never reported it.
Three months later, Cole reported the theft of an armoured Toyota SUV assigned to VIPs. His chief suspect was a Sallyport bodyguard. The Toyota was recovered within days; Cole was called off the case.
Security breaches continued. On November 15, 2016, militia drove three flatbeds onto the base, one equipped with a crane. After lifting three enormous generators onto the trucks, the militia drove away unchallenged.
As Cole and King sought to get to the bottom of the alcohol smuggling, they stumbled across a prostitution ring in Baghdad whose customers included Sallyport employees, informants said. They learned that four Ethiopians who had previously worked as prostitutes at the hotel had moved to Balad and were doing the same while moonlighting as Sallyport housekeepers.
Before either investigation was completed, a Sallyport executive in Virginia shut them down, they say. Stuckart said the prostitution allegations were not substantiated.
"It is absurd to suggest that the company would shut down an inquiry into a matter of such gravity," he said.
By then, Cole and King had begun their investigation into complaints that Sallyport managers were falsifying timesheets and people were getting paid without working.
The investigators say company lawyers ordered them to keep two sets of books, which they interpreted as an attempt to deceive auditors.
"One for the government to see and one for the government not to see," King said.