WASHINGTON - Sixteen private guards have been removed from the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan in a scandal over sexual hazing and lewd behavior, the State Department said on Thursday as the security contractor faced new allegations of misconduct.
A federal whistle-blower lawsuit filed on Thursday against ArmorGroup North America charged that the firm contracted to protect the embassy had ignored brothel visits by guardsmen, sexual hazing and other misconduct because of what a lawyer said was a "myopic preoccupation with profit."
The lawsuit by ArmorGroup North America's former director of operations, James Gordon, was the second time in as many weeks the Virginia-based firm has come under fire for its performance in a five-year, $187 million contract with the State Department.
A watchdog report on September 1 charged that ArmorGroup jeopardized security at the embassy by chronically understaffing the facility and ignoring lewd, drunken conduct and sexual hazing by some guards.
The report by the Project on Government Oversight included photos of nearly naked men dancing near a bonfire at their camp and urinating on each other while colleagues snapped photos. A video showed men pouring alcohol down the bare backside of a new recruit and drinking it as it spilled from his buttocks.
Spokesman P.J. Crowley said investigators had interviewed more than 150 people over the past week in connection with the watchdog's allegations. Eight guards were removed, four resigned of their own accord, two managers were dismissed and two others left voluntarily, he said.
"The State Department continues to fully investigate allegations regarding ArmorGroup," Crowley said. "We have aggressively overseen this contract since it was awarded in March of 2007 and went into force in July of 2007."
CITED NINE TIMES
As evidence of aggressive oversight, he said the firm had been cited nine times for performance deficiencies and each time the State Department and ArmorGroup had agreed on measures to remedy the problem.
The State Department extended ArmorGroup's contract for another year in June despite citing the firm three months earlier for letting 18 guardposts go unstaffed for 30 hours and other shortcomings.
Crowley declined to comment on the specific charges in the Gordon lawsuit, but repeated the U.S. view that "at no time ... was the security of the embassy ever threatened or compromised."
Gordon, noting that many of the security guards do not speak English, told reporters in a telephone briefing from Afghanistan it was "ludicrous for anyone to think that is a safe environment and that is an effective security force."
"I don't see how anybody could say, firstly, that the government is getting what they are paying for, and secondly, that that does not compromise the security of the embassy itself," he said.
The lawsuit filed by Gordon charged that three senior guards -- the person in charge of weapons, the top guard manager and a medic -- frequented a Kabul brothel in violation of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
Gordon, a former New Zealand army captain, said when he tried to investigate the matter, it was handed over to the company's London-based parent firm, which produced a "whitewashed" three-page report that resulted in a warning letter being placed in the project manager's employee file.
Gordon's suit makes a number of other allegations against ArmorGroup, now owned by Florida-based Wackenhut Services. It charges Gordon was effectively forced to leave his job when he warned the company and the State Department about failures to fully implement the contract.
(Reporting by David Alexander, editing by Anthony Boadle)