Man turned in ex-employer over stolen 9-11 donations
When Dan L'Allier saw wrongdoing by his former employer, he acted to make things right.
But L'Allier found convincing authorities to do likewise wasn't easy. Meantime, he and two co-workers who joined him in turning in their bosses lost their jobs, besides withstanding considerable intimidation. A judge's order they not discuss the case was only recently lifted.
The government has since closed the Twin Cities area company where they worked, and officials from there were prosecuted and jailed for stealing money from federal disaster agencies. Yet, the now-Ellsworth resident isn't sure he'd respond the same under similar circumstances.
"Jail for them makes me feel good," he was quoted as saying in the St. Paul Pioneer Press last month. "But I feel very cynical about the whole thing. I don't know if I would do it again."
L'Allier said he was a manager for Kieger Enterprises Inc. (KEI), which had approximately 200 employees. He'd been hired in early 2001 to be a wild land firefighter and his job later expanded into hazardous materials clean-up. He has 20 years of experience as a fire service volunteer and previously worked as a truck dispatcher in Little Canada, Minn.
Among area projects with which KEI was involved were the Siren tornado, a fire at Farmland Foods in Albert Lea, Minn., forensic recoveries at landfills and train derailments, he said. The company contracted with such agencies as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Departments of Natural Resources.
As a government contractor, KEI managed a Long Island, N.Y., warehouse filled with supplies donated by businesses and citizens in the rescue effort after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the East Coast. He was booking trucks when he saw truckloads of stolen equipment enter Kieger's Lino Lakes, Minn., plant.
Forty-five tons of items including donated bottled water, clothes, tools and generators from New York worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were seen being unloaded. Evidence developed from what the whistleblowers later told Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents showed this was part of a plot to sell some of the goods for profit.
He became convinced they should alert authorities once he witnessed the door of a destroyed fire truck strapped to the side of one truck's trailer.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," the one-time paramedic for the Maplewood, Minn., Police Department said Tuesday, outraged someone would take a fire truck door after several hundred firefighters died trying to help others.
L'Allier and two fellow KEI managers decided to pursue the matter, he said. One of the others had just left the company, so was delegated to make the contact.
"The FBI (agent) kinda laughed," he said, indicating it was only when they made a second contact to another part of the agency that a different agent was assigned.
That agent took the investigation seriously, digging and finding overbilling, overcharges and fraud, he said. In the end, there were 49 indictments.
However, any plan to prosecute the company for the thefts stopped when it was discovered in late summer 2002 an FBI agent had taken a crystal globe from Ground Zero. A subsequent review found 16 government employees, including a top FBI executive and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield, had such artifacts from New York or the Pentagon.
Thomas Heffelfinger, the former U.S. attorney in Minnesota who prosecuted the case, was quoted as saying financial fraud was at the heart of it and he never intended to charge the company for the Ground Zero theft. He referred that part to prosecutors in New York; the whistleblowers said they weren't contacted by them.
"All companies have issues...people look for a little extra here, a little extra there," L'Allier said. "But if I was on a jury, I'd know this isn't the same thing," he added, telling he watched a truckload of t-shirts donated by Fruit of the Loom unloaded after being taken from a New York warehouse, followed by a truckload of SoBe brand beverages, also donated by the manufacturer, plus a truckload of generators, tools and other equipment.
The first time the FBI was contacted, KEI didn't act, he said. A couple of months after the second contact, the company hired a former FBI agent to "clean house." It resulted in any employee talking to the retired agent being let go, L'Allier said.
Nonetheless, the FBI soon executed a search warrant and proceeded with the case, he said. Then, L'Allier himself was let go, based on what he described as a "trumped-up" personnel violation about Valentine's Day flowers he put on a personal expense account. A day later, one of his supervisors called him, remorseful about what happened and asking him to come back in and talk about it.
"I wore a wire," he said about their meeting, where he claims he was offered money in exchange for his signing an agreement to separate himself from the accusations.
He and the other managers were subjected to intimidation, he said. They and their family members were followed and got calls in the middle of the night when no one else was on the line.
He even came home to find his garage door open and his motorcycle missing. Blackballed in the disaster relief industry, he had difficulty getting jobs over the nearly two years the case continued.
The U.S. attorney's office is authorized to pay people who are instrumental in a case, L'Allier said. Each of the whistleblowers in this case got $30,000 after expenses, their share in a civil settlement against the company. The recipients were quoted as saying it was hardly worth the trouble.
Moreover, although over $2 million of the amount taken was recovered, $30 million is still missing, he said. And the FBI agent who took on the case became a whistleblower, too, alleging the bureau tried to fire her for bringing the stolen artifacts to light. That agent retired in 2003.
L'Allier and wife Tabitha have lived in Ellsworth a little over two years. He's been full-time with the Ellsworth Ambulance Service for the past year. His spouse is with the Goodhue County (Minn.) Sheriff's Department.
"We're happy to be in Ellsworth," he said.