The chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that investigates the military told ABC News he is deeply concerned by recent allegations that Army units have been saddled with unskilled foreign language translators in Afghanistan.
"This issue of language skills is a very, very significant one," said Rep. Victor F. Snyder, an Arkansas Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on oversight and investigations. "The Army is taking it seriously. Our committee is taking it seriously. We're going to follow up on this."
The most serious allegations surfaced in a lawsuit filed against Mission Essential Personnel, the chief supplier of interpreters into the Afghan war zone. The suit, filed by a former employee, alleges that the company was giving passing grades on language exams to applicants who failed meet the Army's proficiency standards. As a result, the suit says, the company shipped unqualified linguists overseas to be embedded with American troops.
"I determined that someone -- and I didn't know [who] at that time -- was changing the grades from blanks or zeros to passing grades," said Paul Funk, who used to oversee the screening of Afghan linguists for the Columbus, Ohio-based contractor. "Many who failed were marked as being passed."
After being asked about Funk's claims, U.S. Army officials confirmed to ABC News they are investigating the company in connection with the allegations raised in the lawsuit.
Officials at Mission Essential Personnel have strongly disputed Funk's allegations. Marc Peltier, MEP's chief operating officer, said in an interview with ABC News that he had "no reports from the field" of translators who could not communicate in Dari or Pashto. He said the company has received "100 percent outstanding" ratings from the Army and shared a copy of what he said was an internal company survey that showed 82 percent of its customers were satisfied with the performance of its translators.
In a letter to ABC News, CEO Chris Taylor said the company was founded to provide U.S. troops with "the highest level of assistance possible" and "has not just lived up to its goals, but in working with our troops in the field, represents a genuine success."
Taylor also described Funk as disgruntled ex-employee who had threatened to "wage war on the company" after he was dismissed.
Whistleblowers who file such suits stand to collect a portion of any monetary judgment, should the legal action succeed.
Mission Essential Personnel Expects Lawsuit To Be Dismissed
Funk was asked about the company's questions about his motives by the website TPM, and he dismissed them. "They tried to smear me at the very end, and I had nothing to do with any of the problems that they might have said or accused me of," he said, speaking by phone from Iraq, where he is now working for a different contractor.
Funk told the website there remain translators "who are going out there faking their translation and ruining mission after mission after mission," but added that he hoped the recent national exposure would force changes in the way translators are vetted.
The language proficiency of translators has been a concern among some American soldiers and policy makers dating back well before Mission Essential Personnel came on the scene. The challenges for the contractors have been significant – they are tasked with finding increasing numbers of U.S. citizens who speak languages such as Pashto and Dari.
In 2006, a company called Titan (which was later bought by defense giant L-3 Services) was recruiting fewer than half the number of translators the Army needed. A report by the watchdog website CorpWatch said soldiers commonly complained that the translators had poor language skills.
The following year, the lucrative translator contract for Afghanistan was awarded to Mission Essential Personnel, a tiny start-up founded by a U.S. Army Special Forces reservist who was injured in a parachute accident. Taylor, the company's CEO, recently testified that its recruiting numbers are approaching 100 percent, far exceeding the performance of its predecessors.
Funk's assertion that those numbers are the product of shoddy screening of job applicants has left Rep. Snyder uneasy.
If Funk's assertions are true, Snyder told ABC News, "it means they're just trying to put people in the field to get paid."
"If I ask you for five dozen eggs that are fresh, I don't expect you to come back with three dozen eggs and two dozen spoiled ones cause that's what you could find," Snyder said. "We expect them to come back and say there is a shortage. We know there is a shortage. We also are aware this war is going on in areas that are using languages most Americans don't even know the names of."
A spokesman for the company said that logic misinterprets the contract to supply translators to the Army, which could be worth up to $1.4 billion.
"The US Army constructed the contract to disincentivize this sort of conduct," Sean Rushton said in response to a request for comment. "The contract is based on three criteria: cost-control management, quality of personnel, and fill rate, and payments depend on those criteria."
Officials with Mission Essential Personnel told ABC News last week that they expect Funk's lawsuit to be dismissed later this month. An attorney for Funk conceded Tuesday that a dismissal is possible, and that he may have to file his suit again and include greater specificity about the fraud allegations he has already made.