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Did Iraq embassy contractor abuse workers?

A Kuwaiti contractor accused of abusing workers at the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has also worked on a host of other U.S. projects since the Iraq war began in 2003, according to Defense Department records.  NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Elizabeth Leist and Robert Windrem report.
/ Source: NBC News

A Kuwaiti contractor accused of abusing workers at the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has also worked on a host of other U.S. projects since the Iraq war began in 2003, according to Defense Department records. 

Whistleblowers who worked on the embassy have told officials at the State and Justice departments, as well as NBC News, that the contractor, First Kuwaiti International Trading, had brought workers, mostly South Asians and Filipinos, to Baghdad under false pretenses, then abused and threatened them while there.

The State Department and First Kuwaiti deny the allegations, but State admits it is continuing to monitor human trafficking and abuse allegations and the Justice Department has begun a preliminary inquiry out of its Civil Rights Division.

First Kuwaiti is one of the biggest contractors in the Middle East and the main contractor on the troubled 21-building embassy project, which will cost $600 million to build, making it the most expensive diplomatic quarters in U.S. history. The company has already received nearly $400 million for the embassy project, according to contracting records reviewed by NBC News.  It has also been awarded more than a billion dollars in other contracts from the U.S. Army, the Army Corps of Engineers and Halliburton, which hired it as a subcontractor on other projects.

“It is probably the second most influential company in Kuwait,” says a former U.S. intelligence official familiar with First Kuwaiti.

Its chief accuser, Rory Mayberry, signed a contract with First Kuwaiti in March 2006 to work as a medic on the embassy construction site.

Workers misled about destination?
Mayberry alleges that when he showed up at the Kuwait airport for his flight into Baghdad, there were 51 Filipino employees of First Kuwaiti also waiting for the same flight — except the Filipinos believed they were going to Dubai. He says the Filipinos were told to proceed to "GATE 26" at the Kuwait airport — but no Gate 26 existed. There was only a door to a staircase that led to a white plane on the tarmac, Mayberry told NBC.

Mayberry says even he was given a boarding pass that was marked for Dubai, though he knew he was going to Baghdad. 

“The steward was having problems keeping guys in their seats because they were so upset, wanted to get off the airplane,” says Mayberry. “They were upset they weren’t headed to Dubai where they were promised they were working.”

He says when he arrived in Baghdad he notified the State Department official in charge of the embassy project about what had happened on his flight and she replied "that’s the way they do it."

The State Department inspector general, Howard J. Krongard,  found no wrongdoing last year in what he describes as a "limited investigation" but acknowledges the company knew he was coming three months before he arrived.  Still, his report states: “Nothing came to our attention as a result of the foregoing procedures that caused us to believe that TIP (Trafficking in Persons) violations … occurred at the NEC (New Embassy Complex).”

First Kuwaiti denies all the charges, its co-founder Walid al-Absi calling them “bull****” and “nonsense.” But this week, officials who monitor trafficking are still concerned.

"They've looked into indicators of trafficking," Mark Lagon, the deputy assistant secretary for international organization, said. "We will continue at the office I lead to ask questions about that."

In addition, two lawyers in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Andrew Kline and Michael J. Frank, have been talking to former First Kuwaiti employees about the charges.  U.S. officials tell NBC News that they have not decided whether Justice even has jurisdiction in the case since the alleged violations occurred overseas. 

Mayberry also alleges that during his brief time in Iraq in March 2006, he saw medical facilities at the embassy construction site that were not adequate to properly care for the First Kuwaiti employees. He describes painkillers being handed out "like candy" and nurses from India who "didn't know anything" about medical care. He recommended one of the clinics be closed due to "no water, no cleaning supplies for disinfection of health hazards such as blood and fluids."  He believes two deaths occurred due to medicine errors or allergic reactions.

Report lauds medical care
Krongard, the State Department inspector general, however, dismissed Mayberry’s and other whistleblowers’ accusations as baseless in his report, adding “the medical and dental care provided to the workers was exceptional.”

Mayberry said he was sent back to Kuwait by First Kuwaiti only a week after he had gotten to Baghdad. He said they questioned him about his medical skills and then sent him back to the States. He disputes that he was fired.

The allegations are just the latest problems for the embassy, adding to rising costs and even security breaches.  Critics claim it is exposed and in fact, on Wednesday, there were three rocket attacks on the site.  There have been security breaches: Plans for the project were even posted on the Internet.

“They thought they could simply make it work by spending more money and more money until they got to the point where the amounts were so obscene that nobody dared say no," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “Just throw money at it — or take our money out of something we need in the United States — just toss it over there."

NBC's Alex Bregman contributed to this report.