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Iraq air base: US company fires investigators who see wrongs

WASHINGTON — A US company that was paid nearly $700 million to secure an Iraqi base for F-16 jets turned a blind eye to alcohol smuggling, theft, security violations, and allegations of sex trafficking — then fired 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 and possibly 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 the base routinely flew in smuggled alcohol 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.

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The trouble stretches to the headquarters in Reston, Va., say the investigators and other ex-employees. They say much of 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 and were 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.

‘‘I feel like they got us out so quickly because they feel like we knew too much,’’ King said. ‘‘When we finally got the idea that they were hiding all of the stuff from the US government, it was mind-blowing.’’

In a statement, 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.

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‘‘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 ISIS,’’ 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, several former employees said.