Friday, Jan. 30, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Four times a week, pilots working for a North Las Vegas private airline charter company quietly fly to Baghdad and Kabul.
The company, Vision Airlines, is just another U.S. government contractor doing furtive work in Afghanistan and Iraq. But a lawsuit filed against the company in federal court last week reveals something of the otherwise vast and veiled business. Reading the case against Vision Airlines is like squinting through a keyhole to size up the contents of a hangar.
And if Vision has its way, the keyhole — the lawsuit — will be permanently sealed. It will be as secret as the no-lights night landings Vision’s pilots have made in Baghdad and Kabul since 2005.
And it’s this kind of flight that has led some to speculate that Vision is involved in a CIA “extraordinary rendition” program — transferring suspected terrorists around the planet for reasons unclear. Critics will tell you it’s to unlawfully detain and torture prisoners in secret detention sites. U.S. government officials will tell you that no such thing happens at all.
Anybody skeptical of the company, or simply curious to learn how a local operation that hawks Grand Canyon tours and plane rentals for casino whales came to have a side business requiring regular stops in Frankfurt, Bucharest and Bratislava, will probably be only more intrigued to learn that the airline wants to seal the case for reasons that have nothing to do with the case.
Vision Air is being sued by employees who say the company withheld millions in government hazard pay they earned for flying into war zones. At its heart, this lawsuit is a payroll dispute. But sealing the case, according to Vision attorney Harold Gewerter, is matter of protecting “confidential and classified information, wholly irrelevant to the ultimate claims of the plaintiff.”
Gewerter would not say more, which is at least consistent. This is a secretive sealing to protect secret information.
Only it came too late to keep the basics of the lawsuit under wraps. The complaint against the company — an accounting of the employees’ grievances — was filed as a public record on Jan. 20. Three days later Gewerter requested that the case be temporarily sealed while he worked on an argument for its permanent private status. And four days after that, Judge Robert Johnston agreed — the case remains temporarily sealed until Johnston makes a final decision.
But that 28-page document sat open to the world for one week, and it cracked a window into Vision’s work.
According to the lawsuit:
Vision planes, pilots and flight crews have been making twice-weekly trips to Kabul and Baghdad International Airports for the past four years. The company is actually subcontracted by another government contractor. For a while that other contractor was Capital Aviation, then it changed to McNeil Technologies Inc., apparently without the missions skipping a beat.
The lawsuit is class action and alleges that at least 300 current and former employees were shortchanged when Vision decided it could “capture a financial windfall if it simply retained all the hazard pay ... for its own benefit.”
That financial windfall — hazard pay, provided by the government — amounts to more than $21 million since August 2005, when the suit alleges Vision started hoarding the money.
The government requires contractors and subcontractors to swear in affidavits that the hazard pay is given to the employees who earned it.
That $21 million pencils out like this: Pilots, first officers and international relief officers on Vision flights got $2,500 for each landing in Baghdad and Kabul, plus $2,500 for each takeoff — $5,000 per round trip. Other crew members, including flight attendants and mechanics, got $3,000 per round trip.
Employees’ base salaries are not disclosed in the suit. The hazard in that hazard pay, however, is explained clearly:
“Aircraft typically arrive or depart these airports under the cover of darkness to avoid light arms fire, rocket propelled grenades and missile attacks ... to reduce likelihood of rocket and missile attacks aircraft ... must observe blackout procedures which require all exterior and interior aircraft lighting (except for cockpit instruments) to be turned off. In addition, aircraft arriving and departing Baghdad must utilize a dangerous corkscrew procedure, which requires the airplane to fly in a spiral directly above the airport in order to stay within the areas most heavily fortified by the United States military.”
Typically the crews for the flights, according to the suit, consisted of a captain, first officer, international relief officer and four flight attendants — that’s $27,000 in collective hazard pay per flight, with at least four flights a week.
What is not disclosed is just what, or who, was in the planes. The most the lawsuit reveals is this: In addition to transporting cargo, Vision flew “diplomatic and other personnel” to and from Kabul and Baghdad.
Since Vision has been a government subcontractor, the company has based its freight loading and unloading operation in different cities. For a time, goods were loaded and unloaded in Frankfurt, Germany. Then it relocated the operation to Bucharest, Romania. Then they switched to Slovakia. Then they moved back to Romania, where the lawsuit says cargo transfers happen to this day.
Newspapers in those countries have reported on the movement of Vision Air flights, linking the company to the CIA and then to a spider web of alleged rendition flights.
This prisoner rendition theory is not limited to the international news or the blogosphere. A 2006 study presented to the European Parliament, which has been researching illegal rendition in the wake of reactions to 9/11, carefully charted the movements of a Boeing 737 reportedly connected to Vision and based in Frankfurt. The plane, according to airport data cited in the study, traveled the world in a matter of weeks: Washington, D.C.; Cyprus; Pakistan; Dubai; Ireland; Canada; Tunisia; Nigeria; Egypt; Bahrain; Greece; Saudi Arabia; Morocco; Turkey, Jordan; Madagascar; Turkmenistan; and so on.
We may never know what these flights were about, particularly if the case is sealed, though a former Vision pilot, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Home News, the Las Vegas Sun's sister newspaper, that the passengers typically included CIA and State Department personnel along with employees of private security contractor Blackwater.
When the Sun asked Vision’s lawyer whether the company is involved in prisoner rendition flights, he wouldn’t answer the question.
The company’s tourist services — the charter flights to the Grand Canyon and the scenic tours of the southwest, are easily found online. The company’s government work is much harder to pin down.
In September Vision filed an application with the Transportation Department requesting permission to expand its services to include interstate charter air transport using two Boeing 737s. The department, in evaluating this request, wrote up a small brief about the company, which revealed that Vision’s interstate working fleet consisted of 12 planes total, each seating 19 to 30 people. The report also indicated that for the 12-month period ending in April 2008, Vision earned a net income of $4.9 million on approximately $103 million in operating expenses.
The report made no mention of Vision’s government contract work.
Vision’s president, William Acor, and its director, Stephen Acor, appear to be relatives — if not brothers — born about one year apart, according to public records. Both men are listed as officers of a number of Nevada corporations. Steven appears to have a pilot’s license. William has donated money to Republican candidates. The Sun’s phone call to the company’s headquarters in North Las Vegas went unreturned.