By GENE JOHNSONAssociated Press
SEATTLE (AP) - A French-owned telecommunications company has agreed to pay $4.2 million to settle a whistleblower's lawsuit over the testing of a 911-style emergency response system in Iraq, the Justice Department said Friday.
Lucent Technologies World Services Inc., a subsidiary of Alcatel-Lucent, was awarded a $250 million U.S. Army contract to build the system for Baghdad and 15 other cities in 2004.
The project's former manager, Geoffrey Willson, said in a lawsuit in federal court in Seattle that Lucent lied to the U.S. government when it claimed to have completed testing of the system's radio transmission sites and of the network as a whole.
Among other claims of accounting fraud, Willson alleged that Lucent falsely certified that the testing had been done in an attempt to get paid more quickly, and that the company's performance was a factor in an $8.5 million bonus it received.
The company retaliated against him by falsely accusing him of impropriety and ultimately firing him, he said.
Willson brought the lawsuit on behalf of the U.S. government and as the whistleblower keeps a substantial chunk of the payout: $758,000.
Lucent did not acknowledge wrongdoing.
"It was bad enough conditions working in Iraq," Willson said Friday. "There were bombings, rocket events, one of my contract officers was killed at his desk some seconds after I left him.
"And to have the people you're working with start accusing you of all kinds of things, it really amounted to feeling like the enemy was on both sides."
The U.S. special inspector for Iraq reconstruction audited the "Advanced First Responder Network" in 2006, but its report made no mention of the issues Willson raised. Instead, the report focused on the fact that system remained largely inoperable at that point, with seven of nine new dispatch centers unable to receive calls from the public and other problems.
There were no allegations made in the lawsuit that the emergency communications system failed to work properly, and many of the problems identified in the audit were subsequently resolved.
Waste and fraud were rampant in government contracting in Iraq. In a report this year, the special inspector general estimated that of the $51 billion in taxpayer money the U.S. government spent on reconstruction there, $6 billion to $8 billion were lost to waste, fraud and abuse.
"The United States must be able to count upon government contractors to seek payment only for services performed in conformance with their contractual obligations," Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a written statement Friday. "That is particularly true of contractors performing work for the United States in 'hot spots' around the globe where verification of invoiced work can be both difficult and dangerous."
Lucent hired Willson, a Seattle contract law attorney, in 2004 to work in Baghdad as senior contract manager on the project. He was fired a year and a half later in retaliation for complaining to the company about its actions, he said in his lawsuit. At the time he was fired, he was on vacation in England, and the company declined to provide him transportation home, said his lawyer, Stephen Teller of Seattle.
"My client was pretty courageous as a whistleblower, and he suffered a lot as a result of it," Teller said.
Gene Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle .
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.