Justice Dept. Sues Over Defective Body Armor

The Justice Dept. is suing a Japanese company for allegedly supplying the government with defective body armor, putting thousands of law enforcement officers at risk.

The suit, filed Tuesday, claims Toyobo Co. defrauded government officials, charging the company knowingly sold faulty bulletproof vests -- more than 100,000 of which were purchased by the federal government for federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies.

Toyobo spokesman Kent Jarrell released a statement to ABC News, saying the company has not seen the complaint, but that the company "expects that the evidence will show the allegations against the Toyobo are without basis."

"Toyobo's actions were proper and prompt and the company was not involved in the design, engineering, production, or sale of the armored manufacturers' vests," the statement said.

At the center of the controversy is a Toyobo product called Zylon, a high-tensile strength polymer fiber used in the manufacture of body armor. Justice Department officials say "Toyobo was aware of significant manufacturing and degradation problems that were inherent in both its fiber and in its manufacturing process."

The complaint also alleges "Toyobo never had control of its manufacturing process, was manufacturing Zylon with serious defects that resulted in lower fiber strength, and knew that Zylon degraded much faster than was disclosed."

The Zylon was used in vests manufactured by at least nine companies and their subsidiaries.

The Justice Department had also sued Toyobo in 2005, in connection with vests made by the company Second Chance Body Armor -- at the time, the nation's largest supplier of bullet proof vests.

The government claimed the company's own tests showed that Zylon deteriorates quickly over time, drastically reducing the effectiveness of the vests that were designed to protect officers shot at close range.

Jarrell asserted that Toyobo has been upfront with internal test results on Zylon, and shared those results with manufacturers.

"Toyobo also urged all manufacturers to inform their customers of the test results," Jarrell's statement said.

In 2003, Second Chance recalled 130,000 vests made completely of Zylon, but later said vests made with even small amounts of Zylon "may fail to perform." The company later went bankrupt.

Faulty vests might have had had deadly consequences.

Tony Zeppetella, an Oceanside, Calif., police officer was killed in 1993 when a bullet went through his Second Chance vest and severed a major artery. In two other instances, an officer was killed and another was wounded while wearing vests made of Zylon.

After the 2003 Second Chance recall, then Attorney General John Ashcroft directed the Justice Department to take several steps to investigate the reliability of body armor.

He asked the National Institute of Justice, the department's research arm, to conduct a study on the viability of vests containing Zylon, including those retrofitted using kits provided by manufacturers.

The department also started providing more information on research findings and other updates to the law enforcement community, and assisting departments with replacing defective vests if necessary. The Justice Department had already begun a Bulletproof Vest Partnership, an initiative developed to distribute grants to state and local law enforcement agencies in order for them to obtain the critical vests, in the late 1990s.

The government is suing for $45 million — the amount it says it spent on the allegedly defective vests. Sources tell ABC News the government is planning to seek as much as $135 million in damages.