Odd couple at center of Russian helicopter inquiry

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WASHINGTON (AP) - Yuri Borisov’s performance on a lucrative U.S. military contract was dismal - cost overruns, blown deadlines, forged paperwork.

Yet that didn’t keep the Russian entrepreneur from winning more business with the Department of Defense, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Borisov, who specializes in refurbishing Russian Mi-17 helicopters, had an ally in Bert Vergez, an Army colonel who ran an obscure defense acquisition office in Huntsville, Ala.

When Borisov insisted on being paid millions of dollars extra for overhaul work his companies were late on, Vergez supported him.

When Borisov sought a new multimillion helicopter overhaul contract, it was Vergez’s office that approved the deal.

Even when auditors from the Pentagon inspector general’s office were uncovering signs of illegal activity, it was Vergez who pitched a plan to install new engines on Mi-17s bound for Afghanistan - an arrangement that promised millions of dollars in revenue for Borisov.

The relationship between the two men is at the heart of a criminal investigation into why the Huntsville office Vergez once commanded kept dealing with Borisov despite an alarming catalog of problems.

The case is a glimpse into the labyrinth of military procurement, where even today, Borisov’s companies, AviaBaltika Aviation and Saint Petersburg Aircraft Repair Company, remain technically eligible for federal contracts. The inspector general’s audit recommended that the Army take steps to debar or suspend the companies, but no such action has been taken more than a year later.

“I am deeply concerned by the Department of Defense’s stubborn refusal to stop contracting with firms that stand accused of defrauding the U.S. government,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican. “If the Pentagon fails to take the formal steps to bar these firms from future contracts, the real victim will be the American taxpayer.”

The FBI and Defense Criminal Investigative Service are leading the inquiry. Representatives for both agencies declined comment.

Vergez, who retired from the military in November 2012, and Borisov did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

It’s unclear when the two men met.

Vergez, 48, spent 25 years in uniform.

He graduated in 1987 from Norwich University, a private military school in Vermont, and earned a master’s degree from the Florida Institute of Technology. In the Army, Vergez flew Apache and Cobra attack helicopters. He deployed to Albania in 1999 and later served a tour in Iraq, his service record states. In 2001, Vergez was assigned to the Army command in Hunstville that manages the service’s aviation budget.

Borisov, 57, served in the Soviet military for 10 years and launched his aviation companies in the early 1990s. AviaBaltika is based in Kaunas, Lithuania. Saint Petersburg Aircraft Repair Company, better known as SPARC, is headquartered in Russia.

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