Sex-slave whistle-blowers vindicated

DynCorp, a private military powerhouse, fired two employees who complained that colleagues were involved in Bosnian forced-prostitution rings. The employees went to court -- and won.

Published August 6, 2002 10:26PM (EDT)

Two former employees of DynCorp, the government contracting powerhouse, have won legal victories after charging that the $2 billion-a-year firm fired them when they complained that co-workers were involved in a Bosnia sex-slave trade.

The court actions -- one in the United Kingdom, the other in Fort Worth, Texas -- suggest that the company did not move aggressively enough when reports of sexual misconduct among its employees began to emerge in 1999. The tribunal in the U.K. found that DynCorp employee Kathryn Bolkovac "acted reasonably," but that the company did not.

"DynCorp is an enormous operation, with strong ties to the U.S. government," Bolkovac's legal representative, Karen Bailey, said in a prepared statement. "She took on the big guns and won. The plight of trafficking victims is appalling and I'm glad that Kathryn's case has gone some way to bringing it to wider attention."

The tribunal found that DynCorp Aerospace UK Ltd., a subsidiary of DynCorp Inc., violated the U.K.'s whistle-blowing statute -- the Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998 -- when the company fired Bolkovac. A separate hearing is scheduled for October to determine what damages DynCorp should face.

DynCorp did not respond to calls seeking comment on Monday. But in remarks to the Associated Press, DynCorp spokesman Chuck Taylor said the company was considering an appeal. "We're very disappointed in the tribunal's ruling and can only reinforce that DynCorp's decision to dismiss Ms. Bolkovac was based solely on the grounds of gross misconduct because of time-sheet fraud," Taylor said.

In the second case, DynCorp agreed to settle a suit brought by former helicopter mechanic Ben Johnston late Friday night, two days before the case was set to go to trial in Texas. The amount of Johnston's settlement is confidential, but both Johnston and his attorney said they viewed the settlement as a victory -- and as a vindication after two years of fighting the company.

"This settlement wouldn't have happened if DynCorp hadn't, at least internally, accepted some responsibility for what happened in the Balkans," said Johnston's attorney, Kevin Glasheen, when reached at his Lubbock, Texas, office.

In late June, Salon published a two-part investigation into the participation of DynCorp employees in the Bosnian sex-slave trade, based in part on evidence uncovered in the Johnston case. At least 13 DynCorp employees have been sent home from Bosnia -- and at least seven of them fired -- for purchasing women or participating in other prostitution-related activities. But despite large amounts of evidence in some cases, none of the DynCorp employees sent home have faced criminal prosecution.

Because of a combination of international treaties, jurisdictional loopholes and bureaucratic confusion, employees of private military companies such as DynCorp can escape prosecution for crimes they commit overseas. Most common crimes committed outside the United States are beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, and the burgeoning local law enforcement systems in war-torn regions such as Bosnia are often insufficient or unwilling to police U.S. contractors.

Forced prostitution is common in nations undergoing rebuilding, due in large part to the massive contingent of unaccompanied, highly paid, mostly male international aid workers sent to such countries, according to human rights workers. Martina Vandenberg, a women's rights researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Salon that during a 1999 tour, she found that "Bosnia was absolutely littered with brothels" staffed by women who had been sold as chattel for $600 to $700, "with all the rights of ownership attaching."

DynCorp is a privately held company that relies on government contracts for over 95 percent of its business. Among other services, it provides pilots to the State Department; maintenance crews, communications specialists and weapons experts to the armed forces; and police officers to the U.N.

Ben Johnston claims that buying prostitutes -- many of whom were clearly underage -- had become so common among DynCorp employees at Camp Comanche, outside Tuzla, Bosnia, that he was forced to report the problem to the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigative Command.

The Army conducted an investigation into Johnston's claims and eventually compiled a significant amount of evidence implicating at least two DynCorp employees in wrongdoing involving local prostitutes. The freedom of the prostitutes was never positively determined, as investigators ultimately found that the Army did not have jurisdiction over civilian contractors and turned the case over to the Bosnian police. The Bosnian police, who were unsure whether DynCorp employees were immune from Bosnian jurisdiction under the Dayton Peace Accords, never brought charges against the men. They were sent home and fired by DynCorp after the Army reported its findings to the company.

Johnston was also fired by DynCorp at that time. Glasheen, his attorney, said he is confident that they would have won a jury trial, in part because DynCorp's excuses for firing Johnston were so numerous and varied that they undermined the company's case. The company's official reason for firing Johnston was that he had "brought discredit to the company and the U.S. Army." On its Web site, DynCorp stated that Johnston's firing had nothing to do with the Army investigation and that the company didn't even know he had complained to the Criminal Investigative Command. The manager who signed his termination papers, however, stated in a deposition that Johnston had brought discredit to the company and the Army with unsubstantiated claims against co-workers -- even though Army investigators had found support for some of Johnston's allegations. Various other claims by DynCorp supervisors alternately implied that Johnston was fired for poor workmanship, misuse of company assets, or failing to report to work. Johnston denies all of these charges.

DynCorp had contended that Bolkovac was fired for falsifying time sheets. But in her case, she says, DynCorp fired her after she sent an e-mail to DynCorp and U.N. higher-ups describing complicity in forced prostitution by international aid workers, including members of the International Police Task Force. The British employment tribunal supported Bolkovac's version of events, finding little to support DynCorp's claim and describing the evidence DynCorp provided as being "sketchy to the point of nonexistent," according to Bolkovac's attorneys.

By Robert Capps

Robert Capps is a fellow in investigative reporting at Salon.

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