Judge: Lawsuit Alleging Firm Supplied Army With Unqualified Translators Can Proceed

Photo: Translator Lawsuit Dismissed, But Whistleblower Allowed To Refile: Attorney Says Paul Funk Will File Amended Complaint Against Mission Essential PersonnelPlayABC News
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A federal judge in Virginia will allow a whistleblower to move ahead with a lawsuit that accuses the largest U.S. Army supplier of foreign language interpreters of deploying unqualified translators to Afghanistan.

Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled Friday in favor of Paul Funk, a former employee who once oversaw the screening of linguists for the company, Mission Essential Personnel (MEP). Funk alleged in his lawsuit that the company allowed unqualified translators to be sent to the battlefield to work alongside American troops. He alleged that some translators cheated on oral exams, while others fell short of proficiency requirements but were sent to Afghanistan anyway.

In holding that the case could move forward, the judge said it raised issues that are "so critical, when you think about how our soldiers rely upon the interpreters in Afghanistan."

"Let the light be shone upon the situation, and at the end of the day … it will be resolved," she said.

MEP spokesman Sean Rushton said the company is "confident in the judicial system and looks forward to presenting our position more fully, which we believe will lead to a ruling in our favor."

"Our view is that the plaintiff's lawsuit lacks key information, which deprives it of a legal basis to proceed further," he said.

In a court hearing last week, lawyers for MEP argued the case should be dismissed. They said that Funk's allegations were unsubstantiated and false. "Mr. Funk would like you to skip across the wave tops and look at the broad sea," attorney Anthony H. Anikeeff told the judge, according to an official transcript of Friday's court proceedings.

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"The point is that, while he alleges this grand scheme," said Anikeeff, "I call it like a cotton candy fraud case, where there's lots of ethereal wrapping around a core, but what's missing is just dig down a little bit … there isn't a single allegation of any kind of fraud."

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MEP: No Complaints From the Field About Translators

Friday's ruling marked the latest twist in a case that raises questions about the quality of the translators who work alongside American troops as they attempt to build alliances with Afghan citizens and gather intelligence about Taliban fighters. MEP has obtained contracts worth more than $1 billion to supply translators, and officials with the company have told ABC News they are living up to the terms of those contracts.

While the company agreed that translators were required to meet oral language proficiency standards, they argued that the U.S. military had waived the reading and writing proficiency requirements for Dari and Pashto speakers. In their brief to the court, MEP said the proficiency requirements changed periodically as part of a "dynamic contractual relationship between the government and MEP to address the evolving needs of the Afghan war."

Wherever the proficiency requirements were set, Marc Peltier, MEP's chief operating officer, told 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 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."

The ruling Friday was in response to an amended complaint filed by Funk – an earlier version was dismissed when the judge determined it lacked specifics to buttress his allegations. His latest complaint outlines how he claims the company allowed poorly skilled translators to be hired, and why. The complaint cites specific instances where Funk says prospective translators who had "submitted blank written examinations to determine [their language] proficiency had received passing grades." Funk said he repeatedly sounded alarms about the alleged deficiencies, including in one memo in which he allegedly wrote that "Written Testing appears to be compromised."

In the suit, Funk says he was asked to retest three applicants who had failed the exam.

"The explanation provided was that one of the three had not had a dictionary at the time of the examination," the complaint alleges. "When re-tested, each of the three individuals passed the written examination. Mr. Funk's Deputy Director, Idin Pirasteh, discovered – and reported to Mr. Funk – a 'cheat sheet' that had been used by one or all of these individuals for the re-examination. This cheat sheet contained written answers to the test questions."

Executives with the company told ABC News that Funk is a disgruntled ex-employee who "resigned due to financial improprieties in his office" and then then threatened to "wage war on the company." He denies that, saying he is telling the truth and that his goal is to prevent American troops from being put in harm's way.

Whistleblowers who file such suits stand to collect a portion of any monetary judgment, should the legal action succeed. The U.S. government is given an opportunity to intervene in such cases. Thusfar, the U.S. Justice Department has not decided whether it will intervene in Funk's case.

Judge Brinkema said Friday she believed Funk provided enough specifics about his allegations to permit the case to go forward. "Whether at the end of the day, when all the discovery is put together, it flies, is another issue," Brinkema said.

"The issues in this case are very important, and they need to go forward," she said. "Whether at the end of the day, when all the discovery is put together, it flies, is another issue."

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