• Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

During the 1980s, Office of Special Investigations agents investigated a number of cases where it was alleged that contractors had defrauded the Air Force by providing faulty aircraft parts. When agents presented these investigations to a U.S. Attorney for prosecution, often the contractor would testify that they purchased the parts from the Defense Reutilization Marketing Office (DRMO), which stored new unused aircraft parts when their “shelf” life expired.

Attorneys frequently declined to prosecute the cases, noting that since there was a possibility the parts were defective when purchased by the contractor, the Air Force itself could be at fault. To prove a contractor was at fault and liable for prosecution, agents had to establish that the contractor intentionally purchased a defective or old part and cosmetically restored it for the purpose of selling it to the Air Force as a new item. Even though the Air Force contract strictly stated the part had to be “new and unused,” the successful prosecution rested on the ability to provide direct evidence of fraud and the contractor’s purposeful intention to defraud the government.

This evidence requirement presented a challenge to investigators. Absent a full admission of fraudulent intentions in court, the most promising alternative appeared to be a “sting” undercover operation, complete with extensive video and audio surveillance. At the time, agents prepared an operations plan for an undercover storefront stocked with defective aircraft parts and staffed with undercover agents. The agents would have cover identities, live away from home for an extended period of time and be knowledgeable of aircraft vernacular and private business techniques such as sales, inventory, lines of credit and government contracting processes. One of the agents had to be a technical surveillance agent in order to handle the electronic surveillance equipment including closed circuit television, microphones and other devices, which were installed throughout the store.

Two OSI undercover agents were selected and approved for the operation, along with a handling agent, who was to provide all operational requirements. In case agents required federal assistance, they pre-briefed the operation to the Undercover Review Board at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. This cooperation briefing was thought to be a “first” for both agencies. Bureau leadership wanted a “guarantee” that defective parts would never be placed on a military or commercial aircraft, and OSI agents explained several fail-safe procedures built into the operations plan. FBI leadership requested to be a partner in the operation, agreed to pay the undercover expenses and provided two of their own undercover agents, one of whom held a pilot license. OSI HQ approved the joint operation.

Cooperation from a limited number of airmen was also key to the success of the operation. The Air Logistics Commander at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., gave permission to use his people and some funds to pay for the contracts generated. The commander knew that receiving defective parts in the past had introduced risk, added cost and potential loss of life. Agents explained the store front was necessary to obtain the evidence required for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to mount a successful prosecution. Agents convinced the two-star general to cooperate under the condition that OSI was not to brief anyone he did not approve of beforehand, including any agents not directly involved with the operation. In addition, a trustworthy employee at DRMO HQ had to be recruited and vetted to identify aircraft parts they had in stock and to ship the selected parts to a “dummy” corporation established at Tinker (not the undercover store). This corporation was set up by agents to insure the organization could not be traced to investigators. The plan required assistance from several contracting officers, item managers, equipment and other aircraft specialists. Agents recruited 23 such professionals, who were polygraphed and sworn to secrecy. 

Aside from the above plan requirements, agents required physical items. They obtained undercover vehicles from a U.S. Treasury Department seizure lot in Long Beach, Calif. There were several reasons to use these vehicles, but most importantly, their registry would be difficult to trace. The selected cars were registered locally and several “backstops” were put in place in case someone attempted to trace the license plate number. 

One agent noted that: “They bought a truck that was registered to my undercover name and they gave me credit cards that worked and all kinds of wallet stuffers. They really did a great job of back stopping me. The only thing I had to provide was a friend for a reference in case they needed to call anyone. I had a very good friend; John at the electric company, and I told him to build a file with my undercover name on it and put it in your desk. If you ever get a call for reference then you can say, yeah, he worked for me, but he was kind of a shady character and I had to let him go. I told him not to explain any further than that and he said okay, I can take care that. He never did get a call but at least it was there if I ever needed it.”

As an example of the complexity and discretion required, about halfway through the operation, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS) received a complaint that a unit calling themselves the 8th Special Operations Squadron was receiving aircraft parts on base, while the United States Air Force registry had no listing for the unit at the time. DCIS agents eventually called the local OSI office to ask if they had knowledge of an illegal operation on the base. Agents referred their colleagues to OSI HQ for an explanation, which prevented further inquiries until the operation was made public.

Undercover agents selected the storefront, stocked it with parts and wired the entire building in order to collect video and audio evidence of the transactions. They rehearsed their roles and were soon in business. The entire operation lasted three and a half years--longer than any joint undercover operation--and many times the operational stress was tremendous on the agents as well as their families. Agents faced dangerous situations each time they travelled to visit dishonest contractors. They used a privately owned aircraft to ferry employees from the various locations to contractor sites. On one trip, a contractor expressed his disloyalty to the U.S. He agreed to make gun “silencers” and was not fazed by the possibility these silencers might reach terrorists and/or organizations sworn to commit violence against U.S. citizens. He agreed to sell the silencers to undercover agents and actually fired a test shot over their head during the sales meet. The operation also uncovered Tinker employees who were stealing aircraft parts and selling them to contractors, who in turn would resell the parts back to the Air Force.

Operation EAGLE FLIGHT received local and national press coverage. OSI leadership recommended procedural changes in the inspection process if the Air Force were to continue buying “new and unused” parts. Eventually, the Air Force agreed to only buy parts from the original manufacturer.  EAGLE FLIGHT was unique due to the evidentiary requirements to prove fraud on the part of the contractors, which led to a complex joint operations plan with meticulous documentation requirements. The effort prevented further potential loss of life and increased risk to mission failure because at least one contractor was known to be switching aircraft brake pads with defective ones, in the hopes that no one would notice. OSI rose to the occasion, and contractors willing to commit fraud were put out of business by Operation EAGLE FLIGHT.