WASHINGTON—A California manufacturer of body armor is under criminal investigation for possibly making false claims, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, but lawmakers are pressing for an independent test to determine whether the company's protective vests are better than the ones that American troops in Iraq are wearing.
Air Force investigators said they'd been probing Pinnacle Armor Inc. of Fresno, Calif., for a year, looking into allegations that the company lied about having its vests certified as safe. Pinnacle made the claim nine months before it received the federal certification, officials said.
"In my opinion, this is a fraudulent claim, and it is my hope that the investigation results in the appropriate consequences," Army Lt. Gen. N. Ross Thompson III told the House Armed Services Committee.
Lawmakers from both parties accused Pinnacle's president, Murray Neal, of hyping his product, exploiting the fears of soldiers' families, misleading Congress and impugning the Army's integrity.
Neal said his company's Dragon Skin body armor was superior to the Interceptor brand the Pentagon was buying now. It's a big market: The Army and Marine Corps need 178,000 body armor systems for service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some soldiers and Marines have been paying upward of $5,000 to equip themselves with Dragon Skin.
"The bottom line," Neal said, "is that Dragon Skin has been verified as the best body armor in the world."
Unlike the solid Interceptor vests, Dragon Skin uses overlapping silver dollar-sized discs. The flexible system is popular with police SWAT teams, Secret Service agents and others. In the past, Pinnacle also has contracted with different military branches.
Neal charged that "there is a pattern of anti-Dragon Skin misinformation coming from the armed forces." He said a side-by-side test of the two systems, conducted by an independent evaluator, should decide once and for all which was more effective.
"I think we can do that in short order," agreed Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the senior Republican member of the Armed Services Committee.
A Vietnam combat veteran, Hunter offered to set up some quick tests himself with an M-14 rifle.
"There has been a lot of mishandling of this issue by (Pinnacle), and that's clearly disturbing," Hunter said. "I know the Army has got its back up, and justifiably so. On the other hand, we have a technology that may have some value."
Two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee—including Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton—want the Government Accountability Office to oversee body armor tests. Until now, the Pentagon has tested equipment against certain standards, but not side by side.
"Continuing allegations that superior body armor may be available but is not being acquired by the Department of Defense warrant an independent assessment," Clinton and Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who's also a Vietnam veteran, wrote to the GAO last month.
In the House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut has joined with Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California, Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia and other lawmakers to call for a GAO test. The bipartisan urging makes it likely that further testing will take place.
Neal acknowledged Wednesday that recent media attention has boosted his company's sales, including an NBC "Dateline" report that included independent testing in Germany.
The tests entail shooting into the armor and seeing whether bullets pass through or leave marked bruising on clay that's supposed to mimic human flesh.
"Interceptor performs well, but Dragon Skin is better," testified Philip Coyle III, formerly the Pentagon's chief adviser on testing and evaluation.
Under questioning, Coyle and Neal acknowledged that at least one Army test had resulted in a bullet penetrating a Dragon Skin vest.
In other test cases, Neal disputed Army claims. He said X-rays showed that the bullets remained safely in the vest; Army officials said the X-rays showed only metal fragments left behind while the bullet passed through.
The Dragon Skin tests included subjecting the vests to immersion in diesel fuel and motor oil and exposing them to temperatures as high as 160 degrees. Any follow-up comparison tests should subject the armor to identical conditions, lawmakers said.
Neal didn't speak about the criminal investigation, which was revealed by Douglas D. Thomas, the executive director of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. The investigation centers on Pinnacle's March 2006 claim that certain vests had been certified to a specific safety level set by the Justice Department. The safety certification was approved, but not until December 2006.
"This is a serious discrepancy," said Democratic Rep. Ike Skeleton of Missouri, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Thomas further revealed that the Air Force is preparing a "debarment package" that could block Pinnacle from receiving future military contracts as early as Friday.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.