Lawmakers may give recalled combat helmets more scrutiny

The Army has issued a recall of more than 34,000 advanced-combat helmets that failed ballistics tests, a move certain to attract scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

But an added element of intrigue that may also catch lawmakers’ attention is the firm that lobbied on behalf of the helmet’s manufacturer: the PMA Group.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Army Criminal Investigation Command is conducting an investigation into the 34,218 helmets recalled. The Army, Air Force and Defense Logistics Agency were in possession of those helmets.

An initial review found that the problem stemmed from a protective finish on screws that failed to hold up well in extreme environments — leaving a weak spot in the helmet.

A leading watchdog group said the mere mention of the controversial lobbying shop in connection to the recalled helmets is enough to attract a bit more scrutiny.

“Anything that has touched the PMA Group is going to be scrutinized,” said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog organization. “Having one of their clients deliver faulty products that are meant to protect our men and women in harm’s way is going to even further amplify scrutiny.”

One congressional staffer agreed, saying anyone related to PMA is going to get a second, third and fourth look.

Gentex Corp. in Carbondale, Pa., manufactures those helmets and is based in Rep. Chris Carney’s (D) district. Gentex has received earmarks sponsored by the lawmaker in recent years. In the 2008 defense appropriations bill, for example, Carney and Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) earmarked $2.7 million for improved performance for helmet displays and life support technologies.

Gentex hired the PMA Group in 1999 and has spent close to $2 million for the lobby shop’s services since then. PMA closed its doors at the end of March after the FBI raided the firm in the fall and began investigating its owner, Paul Magliocchetti, for alleged illegal campaign contributions to lawmakers.

The PMA Group and its lobbyists were the top contributors to Carney’s reelection campaign, pitching in $41,500, according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics. The same data indicate that Gentex was Carney’s fifth campaign contributor.

Gentex, which has been supplying the Pentagon with various products since the 1930s, has since hired the Federal Business Group — a consultancy started by six former PMA lobbyists.

Neither Gentex nor Carney has been accused of any wrongdoing in relation to the PMA scandal.

The recall and investigation into the faulty helmets appears to be a first for Gentex, which has a motto publicized in local newspapers that states: “Failure is not an option.”

Gentex alerted the Army in January that one of its subcontractors, A.J. Hughes Screw Products, used a different kind of finish designed to protect the screws from corrosion. The Army found that extreme environmental conditions caused the substitute screw coating to degrade prematurely and create a weak spot in the helmet. The screws attach the chinstrap and related parts to the helmet and did not conform to Army contract specifications.

“Gentex made the mistake and corrected themselves by bringing it to the government and letting us know that their subcontractor had replaced the hardware with unauthorized hardware,” said Lt. Col. Robert Myles, product manager for soldier survivability, in a statement released by the Army.

Gentex alleges that the subcontractor falsified certificates of compliance for the steel screws.

The Army said that once the investigation is completed, Gentex will absorb the costs and resources to change out the faulty screws.

Gentex spokesman, Ken Lee, told The Hill that the company is looking to find another supplier for the screws and that it is working with the Army to address the best way to get all the helmets back, change the screws and re-test them.

Lee said that Carney’s office is aware of the recall, but is not working with the company to redress the issue. Carney’s office did not return a request for comment by press time.

Gentex is one of four companies to produce the advanced-combat helmet. Gentex has produced close to 300,000 of the 1.2 million delivered to the Army.