"Fight Focuses On Copter Records: Defense contractor files suit to deny access"



Atlanta Journal-Constitution April 5, 2006 P. 3C

Fight Focuses On Copter Records: Defense contractor files suit to deny
access

Washington -- One of the nation's largest defense contractors is suing
the Pentagon to prevent the release of Black Hawk helicopter production
inspection records, saying they would reveal confidential information
to its competitors.

But the Bush administration disagrees with Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.,
whose helicopters are heavily used by the military in Iraq, Afghanistan
and missions throughout the world.

The administration, better known for keeping government information
secret, is asking a federal judge in Washington to release the records
to Alan M. Cohn, a reporter for a television station in New Haven,
Conn.

Cohn is investigating whether mechanical failures have caused Black
Hawk helicopters to crash in Iraq. His quest for information began in
2003 after several Sikorsky employees told him they were worried that
defective parts had caused a series of deadly crashes in Iraq that
year.

Cohn believes the records would shed light on whether the Defense
Department had raised concerns with Sikorsky about the quality of the
helicopter's machinery.

The records in question -- called Corrective Action Requests -- are a
way for the Defense Department to inform a contractor that it is not
complying with the Pentagon's safety and performance standards, said
Dick Finnegan, associate general counsel of the Defense Contract
Management Agency.

In one such record obtained by Cohn, a Pentagon official wrote:

"The recent succession of production problems indicates to us a steady
decline in SAC's [Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.'s] ability to identify and
correct manufacturing and production deficiencies." The Pentagon
official noted in the document that the most notable of 19 cited
examples is the "installation of unqualified parts."

On March 2, 2004, Cohn filed a request under the Freedom of Information
Act to obtain all inspection reports related to the Black Hawk dating
to 2003 and for Sikorsky's responses. The Defense Contract Management
Agency denied Cohn's request two months later.

Cohn appealed and upon review, the agency decided to reverse its
earlier denial and release nearly all the documents.

Sikorsky objected. Robert K. Huffman, a lawyer representing Sikorsky,
argued in legal filings that the release of the information would cause
the aircraft manufacturer "substantial competitive harm" and hurt the
government's ability to obtain information from Sikorsky in the future.

On May 31, 2005, the agency decided that the records would be released
but said Sikorsky's responses to them would remain confidential.

Sikorsky responded by filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for
the District of Columbia against the Pentagon to halt the release of
the records. The Justice Department, in turn, recently asked Judge
Richard W. Roberts to dismiss the case.

"The release of the documents is compelled by, and consistent with the
goals of the FOIA," Justice Department lawyers wrote.

Cohn dismisses Sikorsky's concern about proprietary loss, saying it is
a guise to hide possible mechanical problems that could be embarrassing
to the company.

"We aren't talking about classified information here," said Cohn. "I
can't for the life of me understand why the public doesn't have the
right to this information. Our men and women have their lives on the
line, and we have every right to expect that the aircraft does not have
faulty parts."

Open government advocates agree.

"Our experience has shown that companies are happiest when no
information is shared," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the
Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog
group.

"The threshold for releasing information under the Freedom of
Information Act is high. If the Defense Department believes these
records should be made public, then it raises questions about why the
company wants to keep them secret."

John E. Pike, a defense expert and executive director of Virginia-based
GlobalSecurity.org, said the case is unusual because it pits the right
of Sikorsky to protect its company secrets against the public's right
to know. "Seems to me that a balancing test is needed," Pike said.

Bud Grebey, vice president of communications and marketing at Sikorsky
Aircraft, said he can't comment on the nature of Cohn's requests
because of the pending litigation.

But he did say that the helicopters are not released to the Pentagon
unless all of the concerns in the inspection report are met.

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