Lost in Translation: New Details Emerge in Suit Against Military Translator Company

Whistleblower Paul Funk gives names of MEP translators he calls unqualified.

Oct. 11, 2010 — -- New details of allegations of fraud have emerged against a contracting firm that provides translators to the U.S. Army. The allegations were contained in a revised lawsuit filed in federal court in Virginia by a former manager at the company who claims that his former employer, Mission Essential Personnel (MEP), is sending unqualified translators to Afghanistan.

Paul Funk, who oversaw the screening of Afghan linguists for MEP, had seen his previous complaint against MEP dismissed on September 23rd by Judge Leonie Brinkema for lack of specificity. However, Brinkema dismissed Funk's case without prejudice and gave him leave to refile his suit no later than Oct. 7.

In his amended complaint, Funk provides new specifics to back up his claim that MEP, which holds a contract worth up to $1.4 billion to supply interpreters to the U.S. Army, was giving passing grades on language exams to some applicants who failed to meet the Army's proficiency standards. As a result, Funk alleged in his suit, the Columbus, Ohio-based contractor shipped unqualified linguists overseas to be embedded with American troops.

In the new filing, Funk names dozens of translators who he says were hired after failing proficiency exams and sent to serve alongside American troops. Funk alleges the company knowingly hired unqualified translators because the moment they went on MEP's payroll, the company could then bill the United States government for the costs. Once the translators were "in the pipeline," the lawsuit alleges, "salary and other payments to these individuals would then be reimbursed, with a cost-plus payment, by the United States."

Funk's attorney Kit Pierson told ABC News he will attempt to get court approval to review MEP's internal records to further support Funk's claims.

"Today's amended complaint describes MEP's activities in painstaking detail," Pierson said. "We now plan to subpoena documents from MEP and look forward to a speedy trial."

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In an earlier interview with ABC News, Funk said he had determined that more than one quarter of the translators working alongside American soldiers in Afghanistan failed language proficiency exams but were sent onto the battlefield anyway.

"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 Funk. "Many who failed were marked as being passed."

MEP Denies Funk's Claims

MEP has emphatically denied Funk's claims, and executives with the company told ABC News they believe Funk is disgruntled and said he threatened to "wage war on the company" after he "resigned due to financial improprieties in his office." Company officials said the dismissal of Funk's earlier complaint offers ample support to their position that the claims are groundless.

"As expected, the plaintiff has refiled his case against MEP for the third time," MEP spokesman Sean Rushton said in an email to ABC News. "We have not had time to fully review the complaint. We look forward to addressing the allegations in the new complaint in an appropriate manner under the rules of the court."

Rushton added that the company is "dedicated to supporting America's servicemen and women. Our process for recruiting, vetting, preparing, placing, and managing linguists and other professionals is the best of its kind, employing multiple safeguards. The US Government has awarded MEP the highest ratings for its performance and increased fill orders for our linguists by 1,300 percent in three years."

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 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 newly filed complaint outlines in far greater detail Funk's description of how he believes the company allowed poorly skilled translators to be hired, and why.

The complaint describes specific instances where Funk alleges that 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 revised complaints 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."

Whistleblowers who file such suits stand to collect a portion of any monetary judgment, should the legal action succeed.

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.

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