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06-16-06, 08:13 PM #1FishTail Guest
AP Enterprise: 9/11 thefts not prosecuted
NEW YORK - A disaster relief company that took supplies that were supposed to go to Sept. 11 rescuers at the World Trade Center escaped punishment after the government discovered its own employees had stolen artifacts from ground zero, once-secret federal documents show.
Kieger Enterprises (KEI) of Lino Lakes, Minn., managed a Long Island warehouse for the government that was filled with supplies donated by Americans for the rescue workers.
The FBI developed evidence from whistleblowers that the company had dispatched trucks to the warehouse and loaded hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donated bottled water, clothes, tools and generators to be moved to Minnesota in a plot to sell some for profit, the records show.
Dan L'Allier, a Kieger supervisor at the time, told The Associated Press he witnessed 45 tons of the New York loot being unloaded in Minnesota at his company's headquarters. He and a colleague, Chris Christopherson, complained to a company executive but were ordered to keep quiet.
They went instead to the FBI. The two whistleblowers eventually lost their jobs, received death threats and were blackballed in the disaster relief industry. But they remained convinced their sacrifice was worth it to make sure justice was done.
They were wrong.
Federal prosecutors eventually charged KEI and some executives with fraud for overbilling the government in several disasters, but excluded the Sept. 11 thefts. The company has gone out of business.
As a result, most Americans were kept in the dark for years about the fate of their donated goods, even as new requests for charity emerged for disasters like Hurricane Katrina. And Christopherson and L'Allier were left disillusioned.
"I wouldn't open my mouth again for all the tea in China," L'Allier said. Added Christopherson, a 34-year-old father of two: "It's not worth blowing the whistle unless you don't have anything to lose."
The government ultimately gave the whistleblowers $30,000 each after expenses, their share in a civil settlement against KEI. They say the sum was hardly worth their trouble.
"We all experienced the death threats," L'Allier said. "We all experienced the phone ringing at three in the morning and no one being there. I'd come home and the house would be wide open."
Christopherson recalled receiving boxes of white T-shirts stolen from the Long Island warehouse, sent back to him after KEI had embossed a Sept. 11 logo on the front. He was instructed by his boss to sell them to firefighters, police and volunteers for $12 apiece. He refused.
KEI had worked for years for the government, providing disaster relief services during tornadoes, floods and other catastrophes. It was picked to manage the New York warehouse for the government's main Sept. 11 relief contractor.
Officially, the government can't fully explain why the company wasn't charged with Sept. 11 thefts.
Thomas Heffelfinger, the former U.S. attorney in Minnesota who prosecuted KEI, said he never intended to charge the company for the ground zero theft, and instead referred that part of the case to prosecutors in New York.
"At the heart of the KEI case was financial fraud," Heffelfinger said. "It was so bad we didn't need the theft."
Heather Tasker, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in New York, declined to discuss the KEI case. The whistleblowers, however, said they've never been contacted by New York prosecutors.
FBI documents state the government, in fact, was preparing to charge KEI with the ground zero thefts.
A March 2002 entry in the FBI's "prosecutive status" report states the U.S. Attorney's office in Minnesota intended "to prosecute individuals who were alleged to be involved in the transportation of stolen goods from New York City after the terrorist attack." A followup entry from Sept. 6, 2002 lists the specific evidence supporting such a charge.
The lead investigators for the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency told AP that the plan to prosecute KEI for those thefts stopped as soon as it became clear in late summer 2002 that an FBI agent in Minnesota had stolen a crystal globe from ground zero.
That prompted a broader review that ultimately found 16 government employees, including a top FBI executive and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, had such artifacts from New York or the Pentagon.
"How could you secure an indictment?" FEMA investigator Kirk Beauchamp asked. "It would be a conflict."
While the globe's discovery had been widely reported, its impact on the Sept. 11 thefts had remained mostly unknown.
"It's a sad indictment of our justice system that they would let people go in order to cover up misconduct by federal employees, especially in a prestigious agency like the FBI," said Jane Turner, the lead FBI agent. She too became a whistleblower alleging the bureau tried to fire her for bringing the stolen artifacts to light. Turner retired in 2003.
The FBI declined to discuss Turner's allegation, saying it involved a personnel matter.
Nick Gess, a former federal prosecutor, said the FBI agents' taking of artifacts from ground zero shouldn't have precluded the government from prosecuting the company for stealing relief supplies.
"It strikes me as a non-issue in terms of prosecution," Gess said. "DEA agents have been found to smoke pot occasionally that doesn't mean they (the Drug Enforcement Administration) can't still work on drug cases."
"Taking a desk globe or a trinket is one thing, but stealing thousands of dollars worth of donated supplies is a completely different offense," Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record) of New York said. "These people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
The government also didn't prosecute any of its employees for taking souvenirs, claiming it lacked a policy prohibiting such thefts.
Ultimately, the FBI donated the stolen goods found at KEI's warehouse to the Salvation Army.
Joe Friedberg, a lawyer who represented a KEI executive, dismissed the Sept. 11 thefts as "much ado about nothing." Friedberg said KEI took a few pallets of water and T-shirts because they had authorization from a FEMA official to take surplus items.
But that FEMA official, Kathy McCoy, said she never gave Kieger such permission.
Those who work near ground zero today are shocked to learn such thefts went unpunished.
"To take advantage of people at a time of despair, it's probably one of the worst things human beings can do to another person," said Gregory Broms, Sr., a firefighter with Engine Company 10 at the foot of the former World Trade Center site. "It was morally wrong."
The whistleblowers worry their fate might chill others from exposing wrongdoing.
"They felt they had to come forward about the theft because it was so wrong," Turner said. "I've lost my career. They've lost their jobs. The price is so high for telling the truth."
06-17-06, 11:38 PM #2
A few people from that company are going to prison for embezzlement. I watched one of them say good-bye to his young daughter the night before he had to report to the Federal Pen.
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