Calif. body armor maker sues feds

Fresno company says decertification cost it millions in contracts.
By Sanford Nax,
The Fresno Bee

FRESNO, Calif. — Officials at Pinnacle Armor, saying their business is on the verge of financial ruin, are suing the federal government for removing their bullet-proof vests from a list of approved body armor.

The Fresno company says it lost millions of dollars worth of contracts after the National Institute of Justice in August decertified its Dragon Skin body armor, claiming the company couldn't prove its declared six-year warranty.

"This has been utterly devastating to the financial solvency of Pinnacle," the lawsuit says.

The company estimates it has lost about $2.3 million this year, and has reduced the number of employees from 49 to 32. "We've made major cuts," said Murray Neal, chief executive.

Pinnacle is not asking for monetary damages but is seeking an emergency hearing before a judge in hopes of getting the decertification overturned, said Layne Hayden, the company's Fresno lawyer.

The decertification was significant because many police agencies buy equipment approved by the National Institute of Justice, which is the research arm of the federal Department of Justice.

The federal government covers up to 50% of the cost when law enforcement agencies buy body armor with National Institute of Justice certification. Thus, many law enforcement agencies stopped ordering the vests because the government would no longer pay for half of the $6,000 price tag, according to the complaint.

Neal said some police departments were approved for the 50% grant, had it withdrawn after the decertification and now can't afford any body armor. "The NIJ is willing to put law enforcement officers' lives in jeopardy," he said.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Fresno, claims the National Institute of Justice was not following policy when it yanked the certification, has not specified how body armor is to be tested for mechanical integrity over the warranty period and is holding Pinnacle to "some unknown, nonpromulgated, secret and subjective standard."

Pinnacle says it submitted historical data on the oldest vests it could locate -- some up to 7 years old -- but that was not enough to satisfy the government agency.

"With each submission of evidence, NIJ rejected the evidence as insufficient ... [and] with each further rejection letter from the NIJ, the NIJ makes new and different bases of reasons why it is unsatisfied with Pinnacle's evidence," the suit said.

Larry Brown, first assistant U.S. attorney, would not comment on the merits of the complaint.

The U.S. Attorney's Office is defending the government against the lawsuit.

Brown said the complaint was served Nov. 20, and that his department has two months to respond.

The complaint blames the U.S. Army, saying the National Institute of Justice delegated its authority to the military. "The NIJ told us that from the information they received from the Army, they were going to revoke the certificate," Hayden said in an interview.

Pinnacle and the Army have a tangled relationship. They have a dispute over Dragon Skin, which is made of 2-inch ceramic disks laid out in an interlocking pattern like scales of a fish. Pinnacle says the disks are more difficult to crack than the single large ceramic plates in Interceptor vests used by the Army.

The Army says Dragon Skin failed testing, but Neal says it hasn't been assessed fairly. He's called for Dragon Skin to be tested alongside other body armor, including the Interceptor systems.

Roger Charles, vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group Soldiers For The Truth Foundation, said Pinnacle is not being treated fairly. No reports of Dragon Skin failing in combat have surfaced, and the armor has passed several tests, but the Army wants to discredit the company because it is not a preferred contractor, he contends.

"The Army and the acquisition people just don't want to admit there has been this better product out there," he said. "There is no question they want to kill Dragon Skin and want to do it before it can be tested fairly and honestly."

Army officials couldn't be reached to comment Monday.

Copyright 2007 McClatchy Newspapers, Inc.
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