Despite stonewalling, airline for CIA can't avoid hazard pay


As a government contractor, North Las Vegas-based Vision Airlines has successfully operated in the shadow world that accompanies flying CIA, State Department and Blackwater personnel from the United States to Baghdad and Kabul.

Since May 2005, Vision has contracted its services with Computer Sciences Corporation (later McNeil Technologies) to provide transportation for the government's Air Bridge Program. The company's Boeing jets average two flights a week from Dulles, Va., to Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the United States deported Russian spies to Vienna, the ousted operatives flew Vision Airlines. Vision 737s also were reportedly used in the government's once-clandestine extraordinary rendition program, in which suspected spies and terrorists were abducted by CIA operatives and flown for interrogation purposes to countries that practiced torture.

Vision: The Spy Airlines.

After remaining metaphorically off the radar for years, Vision now finds itself out in the open following a jury's recent verdict in U.S. District Court to award the airline's former pilots and flight attendants more than $4.5 million in back hazard pay.

What kind of hazards? Vision flights regularly arrived in Kabul and Baghdad after dark without cockpit lighting to avoid detection by insurgents. Pilots used evasive maneuvers on takeoff and were regularly faced with the threat of airport rocket attacks.

Key court documents show Vision could not operate off the record in U.S. District Judge Roger L. Hunt's courtroom. After tiring of the company's unrelenting stonewalling in the civil case filed on behalf of 175 former employees by Florida attorney David Buckner and local counsel Ross Goodman, the even-tempered Hunt finally lost his patience. Vision officials flatly refused to produce discovery documents in the case that would have shown its flight personnel were supposed to receive hazard pay for entering a war zone. Instead, Buckner and Goodman claimed, hazard pay turned into added profit for the company.

Buckner said he was gratified by the judge's decision and the jury's verdict, but made it clear the point of the lawsuit was fair compensation for his clients, not exposing possible government secrets. The attorneys didn't try to identify who used Vision's air service.

"I don't know and never asked," Buckner said. "It wasn't really relevant to our case, and we never got into that. I don't know the answer to that."

In granting the class-action plaintiffs' motion for sanctions, Hunt wrote, "Here, Vision has intentionally delayed production of documents, misrepresented its current and past production to both the Court and the Class, and otherwise engaged in bad faith conduct."

Vision received more than sufficient time to turn over documents, and its argument that such materials were somehow classified and beyond the scope of discovery didn't wash with the judge.

A frustrated Hunt added, "It is now impossible to know whether some of these discovery items would have been available had Vision acted properly, but they are unavailable now."

For those unfamiliar with the tone and tenor of the U.S. District Court, that qualifies as spitting mad for a federal judge.

Attempts to reach Vision attorney Harold Gewerter were unsuccessful. After reading the judge's order, it's probably safe to assume Gewerter wasn't busy collecting discovery documents in the case.

Hunt concluded, "It has also become evident that Vision is willing to mislead the Court time after time in order to keep from producing relevant, possibly critical, discovery material."

In the end, Hunt solved Vision's problems by entering a default judgment against the company. He essentially took their response to the lawsuit and threw it in the trash. The only thing left to determine was whether the plaintiffs would receive every nickel in compensation they were owed. A jury quickly ruled in their favor.

Now all the pilots and flight attendants have to do is get the recalcitrant spy airlines to cough up the cash.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

 

Rules for posting comments

Comments posted below are from readers. In no way do they represent the view of Stephens Media LLC or this newspaper. This is a public forum. Read our guidelines for posting. If you believe that a commenter has not followed these guidelines, please click the FLAG icon next to the comment.