Iraq War veteran and double-amputee Rep. Tammy Duckworth shamed a federal contractor during a congressional hearing Wednesday, accusing him of taking advantage of the system for veterans benefits.
During a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, Braulio Castillo, an IRS contractor, was summoned to testify for questionable IRS contracts. Castillo, the owner of Strong Castle Inc., claimed that an injury to his left foot justified his IT company receiving special status as a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business (SDVOSB). Castillo sustained his injury while playing football at his military prep school, The United States Military Academy Preparatory School (USMAPS), in 1984. While Castillo never entered active duty, the Veterans Benefits Administration stipulates that if an individual is injured at preparatory school, "he or she becomes a veteran due to the service-connected disability."
"This hearing is very troubling to me because this case really shows how things can go wrong," Rep. Duckworth said in her opening remarks. "I want to support our small business owners as much as possible. I want these set-asides to be successful, but I am absolutely appalled by the advantages that have been taken of the system."
According to a House oversight report, Castillo filed a disability claim with the Veterans Affairs department just before starting his company, citing the "significant" pain in his foot. He began to receive monthly checks. Within six months of founding his company in early 2012, Castillo started receiving up to $500 million worth in contracts. Committee investigators started to question the IRS contracts specifically set aside for the company and found that Castillo's disability service rating of 30% enabled him to register his company to become eligible for preferential treatment in bidding competitions.
Castillo also chose Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown as a location for Strong Castle, Inc. Chinatown is designated a government "hub zone," which meant that Castillo's company qualified for even more contract bidding. Committee investigators reported their findings to the IRS but the IRS told the committee that it would be too disruptive to cancel a contract worth $260 million. Questioning both the timeline and eligibility, the House committee asked Castillo and IRS officials to testify on Wednesday.
"Does your foot hurt," Duckworth asked Castillo. "My feet hurt too. In fact, the balls of my feet burn continuously, and I feel like there's a nail being hammered into my heel right now. So I can understand pain and suffering, and how service connection can actually cause long-term, unremitting, unyielding, unstoppable pain."
"So I'm sorry that twisting your ankle in high school has now come back to hurt you in such a painful, if also opportune, way for you to gain this status for your business as you were trying to compete for contracts."
Duckworth read from a letter Castillo sent to a government official in which he describes the severe pains from his foot injury as "crosses that I bear in my service to our great country. And I would do it again to protect this great country."
"I'm so glad that you would be willing to play football in prep school again to protect this great country," said Duckworth. "Shame on you, Mr. Castillo. Shame on you. You may not have broken any laws... But you certainly broke the trust of this great nation. You broke the trust of veterans."
"Iraq and Afghanistan veterans right now are waiting an average of 237 days for an initial disability rating, and it is because people like you who are gaming the system are adding to that backlog so that young men and women who are suffering from post-traumatic stress, who are missing limbs, cannot get the compensation and the help that they need."
"You, who never picked up a weapon in defense of this great nation, very cynically took advantage of the system. You broke the faith with this nation. You broke the faith with the men and women who lie in hospitals right now."
"Twisting your ankle in prep school is not defending or serving this nation, Mr. Castillo," the congresswoman concluded.
Before winning her House seat from Illinois last November, Duckworth was a Army helicopter pilot. She lost both legs and severely injured her right arm in November 2004. She was awarded a Purple Heart. After undergoing rehabilitation, she became director of the Veterans Affairs department in Illinois and later served as Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Watch Rep. Duckworth's questioning of Castillo..