Did Washington Inquiry Into Blackwater Hasten Its Potrero Retreat?

by on March 11, 2008 · 0 comments

in War and Peace

Is it just a coincidence that Blackwater beat a retreat out of Potrero on the eve of a Washington inquiry into claims that it violated tax and labor laws? On March 7th we learned that Blackwater pulled its application for the Potrero mercenary camp, and then, in an Associated Press article by Anne Flaherty that appeared March 10th, it was reported that a senior House Democrat has called for a far-reaching federal investigation into Blackwater Worldwide, alleging that the private security contractor violated tax and labor laws by classifying its guards as independent contractors rather than company employees.

It is very possible that the company decided to cut its losses out in the West in order to concentrate on the upcoming inquiry in the East, which it knew was developing ever since Blackwater reps have faced the Klieg lights of Congressional questionings. If the inquiry in the East goes badly for the company, it won’t be able to afford to even purchase the egg ranch out here an hour’s drive from downtown San Diego.

The AP article quoted Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell calling Waxman’s charges “completely without merit, ” and then she continued: “Blackwater’s classification of its personnel is accurate, and Blackwater has always been forthcoming about this aspect of its business with its customer, the U.S. government.”

However, Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said Blackwater’s claims on its business status “appear dubious.” Waxman requested that the Internal Revenue Service and the Labor Department investigate whether Blackwater defrauded the government of tax revenue and violated labor laws. He did this with letters sent Monday, the 10th, to the agencies. Further, Waxman asked the Small Business Administration (SBA) to determine whether the company had violated federal regulations by claiming it was eligible for small business preferences. Waxman is a Democratic House representative from California.

“The implications of Blackwater’s actions are significant,” Waxman said in a memorandum to the Committee. “Committee staff have estimated that Blackwater has avoided paying or withholding up to $50 million in federal taxes by treating its guards as independent contractors rather than employees.”

Waxman asserted that Blackwater’s claim as a small business has earned it more than $144 million in contracts, despite being one of the largest private military contractors and receiving nearly $1.25 billion in federal business since 2000.
Blackwater mouthpiece Tyrell stated that the company “looks forward to continuing its cooperation with all inquiries that may result from these letters” and that “the company regrets the chairman’s decision to publicly air misleading information.”

Blackwater is unlike other security companies operating in Iraq in that it claims that the guards that it trains, equips and deploys to Iraq and elsewhere are independent contractors, not company employees – independent contractors that are hired directly by the federal government, the article reported. Naturally, with U.S. law, companies must pay Social Security and other federal taxes on employees.

Waxman raised this very issue last year, the article said, after he obtained a March letter from the IRS that warned that the company’s classification of a security guard as an independent contractor was “without merit.” This had been the result of an inquiry filed by a Blackwater guard. Upon Blackwater’s appeal, the company alleged that it had received assurances from the SBA that its security guards did not have to be classified as company employees.
The article continued:

the primary factor in determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor is the degree of control the business has over its worker. Incorrectly classifying a worker could mean steep penalties for the company, including a $25,000 penalty if the IRS determines an appeal is frivolous or groundless. In its March letter to Blackwater, the IRS noted the company paid all of the guard’s travel expenses and signed a written agreement detailing the type of work required. “A worker who is required to comply with another person’s instructions about when, where and how he or she is to work is ordinarily an employee,” the IRS stated in the letter. Waxman said Blackwater is trying to have it both ways. In defending itself against last year’s shootings involving its security guards, company officials asserted that they retained tight control of its guards and even fired some 122 guards in Iraq due to improper conduct. At the same time, Blackwater contends it does not have enough control over its guards to classify them as company employees, Waxman said.

Blackwater may very well have to pay the federal government millions of dollars. If so, it had a cover to pull the Potrero plan without admitting that it was retreating due to the community’s pressure. It is simply cutting its losses. And the Potrero operation would have been so much easier and cheaper if everyone had just shut up and gone about their own business.

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