Charges weighed over body armor
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is investigating whether a company sold defective bulletproof vests for President Bush, federal agents and local police and then waited nearly two years to alert customers that the body armor could be unsafe.
A former research chief for Second Chance Body Armor Inc. is cooperating with the criminal investigation and testified this month that the Secret Service tested and bought some of the defective vests for the president and first lady Laura Bush. The Pentagon obtained the same armor for elite troops who guard generals, according to transcripts obtained by The Associated Press.
Questions over Second Chance vests arose in June 2003, when a drug suspect shot Forest Hills police Officer Ed Limbacher in the stomach. The bullet pierced a Zylon fiber-based protective vest supplied by Second Chance and manufactured by Japan-based Toyobo Co.
The furor over that incident, along with several others, provoked a blizzard of suits in seven states against Toyobo and Second Chance, including a June 30 suit filed by the U.S. government over the quality of the bullet-resistant Zylon fiber used in police vests.
Many sales occurred well after Michigan-based Second Chance had been alerted that the Japanese-made Zylon synthetic material in the vests was degrading faster than expected from heat, light and moisture exposure, allowing bullets to potentially penetrate the armor, according to the former employee’s testimony and other company documents.
Prosecutors have gathered documents showing that Second Chance was alerted as early as 1998 by the Japanese material maker, Toyobo Co., that there were problems with Zylon maintaining its protective properties under certain conditions.
By 2001, Second Chance’s research chief, Aaron Westrick, was pleading unsuccessfully with his company’s president to replace the vests after his own tests showed them degrading rapidly, the memos show.
“Lives and our credibility are at stake,” Westrick wrote then-Second Chance president Richard Davis in a Dec. 18, 2001, memo. “We will only prevail if we do the right things and not hesitate. This issue should not be hidden for obvious safety issues and because of future litigation.”
Westrick urged Davis to “immediately notify our customers of the degradation problems,” let those with pending orders cancel them and cease all executive bonuses to save money so the company could pay for a replacement initiative, the memo shows.
But Second Chance customers were not alerted to the problems until September 2003 — after a California police officer was shot to death wearing the vest and the Forest Hills officer was seriously wounded.
In the interim, the Secret Service paid $53,000 in 2002 to Second Chance for body armor, enough to equip the president and the security detail that protects him and other VIPs, federal procurement records show.
Legal professionals and government officials familiar with the inquiry confirmed Westrick’s account about the Secret Service and Bush. The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity, citing grand jury secrecy.