Vested Interests

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The quality concerns at Point Blank should come as no surprise to its low-wage workers. As early as 2002, employees submitted sworn affidavits alleging that Point Blank routinely cut corners to boost profits. In some cases, the company shipped improperly sized vests to fill orders more quickly, the affidavits claim. In others, Point Blank shipped allegedly defective body armor that exposed the shoulders or other parts of the body that should have been protected.

Yet none of these quality concerns has stopped Point Blank from raking in millions in taxpayer dollars. In December 2004, the company won another $190 million contract to supply body armor to the military through 2006.

"We have concerns with Point Blank," says David Goldenberg, legislative director for U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings. "The congressman for a long time has had concerns about the quality of the product that has been coming out of the company and going to the troops overseas."

Point Blank Body Armor has profited handsomely from what the Brookings Institute describes as the most privatized war in U.S. history. Maybe that's what explains all the American flags.

On Point Blank's catalogs and website, Old Glory is draped behind soldiers and the company's trademark: "Protecting America's Heroes." At the company headquarters in Pompano Beach, three flagpoles stand high above a plaque that reads: "These flagpoles erected and dedicated to the memory of America's fallen heroes by Point Blank Body Armor, Inc."

Before those heroes fell, however, there wasn't much to wave a flag about at Point Blank, which was once a struggling, New York-based manufacturer teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1995, another body-armor producer, DHB Industries, rescued the company from insolvency and moved its operation to a factory in Oakland Park. Sandra Hatfield, formerly vice president of a DHB division, Protective Apparel Corp. of America, was named president of Point Blank. Impressed that she was a female executive in a decidedly male-dominated industry, the South Florida Business Journal dubbed her a "steel magnolia" and quoted her as saying: "When am I going to be on the cover of Forbes?"

Hatfield had reason to be cocky. In 1999, only four years after DHB acquired the failing Point Blank, business was growing. The military, the FBI, and law-enforcement agencies nationwide were purchasing Point Blank's body armor, which consisted of a vest stitched around Kevlar, a stronger-than-steel Dupont fiber that, when wrapped over itself in sheets, creates a plate strong enough to stop a speeding bullet. Most of Point Blank's body armor sells for about $400 apiece.

In 1999, DHB Industries, whose Point Blank division accounts for most of its revenue, lost $22.3 million on $35.1 million in revenue. The next year, the company eked out a $5.7 million profit on $70 million in sales. Then came 9/11, and DHB/Point Blank's profits soared. In 2001 and 2002, thanks to several multimillion-dollar contracts from the Department of Defense, which was reacting to a well-publicized shortage of body armor in the military, the company earned $10.1 million and $16 million, respectively, on a combined $228.3 million in revenue.

"We believe the uptick in state, federal, and military spending on body armor is still in the early stages," CEO Brooks told investors on August 6, 2002. "The war on terrorism and a heightened focus on homeland security bode well for the business prospects at DHB."

One day later, Point Blank received yet another order from the military. This one, worth $9.2 million, required the company to manufacture body armor to be used by Army engineers charged with disposing of landmines.

But around the same time, a heated labor dispute exposed a policy at Point Blank that apparently put profits before quality.

Allegations that Point Blank Body Armor has sold defective or improperly sized body armor first came in 2002. That year, factory workers at the company's Oakland Park facility tried to form a labor union under the UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees) umbrella. The company's laborers, most of whom did not speak English and were paid at or close to minimum wage, claimed that they were forced to endure poor working conditions, which allegedly included a lack of drinking water in the facility in an effort to curb the frequency of restroom breaks.

On July 18, 2002, at 9:40 a.m., several employees left their workstations and marched toward management's offices to deliver union demands. As they walked to make their delivery, they chanted "¡Si, se puede!" or "Yes, we can!"

Seeing the demonstration, Hatfield immediately called 911. "It looked like a riot, and something was about to occur," Hatfield would later say in a deposition.

Leading the charge was a Haitian-American man named Sadius Isma. He handed over two documents, which included demands for better work conditions and benefits, to company officials. "It will get bad," Point Blank's chief operating officer, Ronda Graves, remembered Isma saying.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson