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U.S. Airman Denied American-Made Boots

Chinese Boots

Master Sgt. Steven Adachi's boots that were made in China.

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As he prepared for a tour in Afghanistan in early 2012, Master Sgt. Steven Adachi found himself in a difficult position. Upon receiving his uniform while in the United States, he saw that his sage green boots were made in China, potentially violating two “buy American” laws: the Buy American Act and the Berry Amendment. Yet, when Adachi requested an American- manufactured tan pair of boots after arriving in Afghanistan, he received Chinese-made boots once again. Upon requesting an American replacement, he says he was dismissed with a “good luck.” He later was reprimanded, and now faces administrative demotion—likely for whistleblowing.

Adachi’s quest for American-made boots has since led to a bipartisan congressional inquiry, an Inspector General (IG) probe into allegations that the Air Force retaliated against Adachi for blowing the whistle, and to media stories such as those in the Honolulu Star Advertiser and the Air Force Times. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) wants to highlight two important issues that may get lost in all the attention: contracting laws and whistleblower protections.

This case illustrates that the federal government once again is likely ignoring laws or taking advantage of loopholes, this time in laws meant to help American businesses—specifically, the Buy American Act and the Berry Amendment. The Buy American Act, passed in 1933, mandates the government buy American products in most of its purchases. First passed in 1941, the Berry Amendment promotes American goods by requiring the Department of Defense (DoD) to buy only U.S. made products, including clothing. Both the Buy American Act and the Berry Amendment have monetary minimum thresholds for bulk purchases of $3,000 and $150,000, respectively. It is reasonable that our government uses our tax dollars to bolster American manufacturers, particularly when there are laws requiring it and when it is in our national interest to do so.

In a letter to Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), the Air Force ultimately admitted that its acquisition of the sage green pair of  boots Adachi was given was in violation of the Buy American Act because the boots were issued to be used in the United States and not abroad. But perhaps most revealing is the fact that after Adachi’s complaints were made public, his unit’s Chinese-manufactured boots were “removed from the shelves and returned to the vendor,” according to the Star Advertiser.

Some in the DoD disagree with Adachi’s other claim that the Chinese-made boots violate the Berry Amendment. In the same response letter to Hanabusa, the Air Force denied that either pair of boots violated the Berry Amendment, claiming “neither purchase exceeded” the minimum threshold of $150,000. The Under Secretary of Defense similarly argued that neither pair of boots cost enough and thus did not qualify for the Berry Amendment.

But a bipartisan letter from 52 Members of Congress reasoned that because the Chinese boots had “exact” American alternatives and because the Air Force offered “cash allowances” for boot purchases, the DoD was “circumventing the Berry Amendment.” Regardless of whether the boots were in compliance with the Berry Amendment, it is clear that the Air Force, at the very least, violated the Buy American Act and possibly took advantage of a Berry Amendment loophole. POGO hopes that the Air Force and Congress take Adachi’s claims seriously and enforce “buy American” in future purchases.

POGO is also pushing for a DoD IG audit of the Department’s compliance with the Berry Amendment and Buy American Act to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2014. Specifically, POGO hopes to learn whether or not DoD and the military branches are in compliance with those two laws or not, and the extent to which they may be manipulating loopholes to avoid compliance. Past audits have revealed serious violations of both the Berry Amendment and Buy American Act. We hope that current and future procurement practices meet both of these requirements. 

Adachi’s case also reveals another potential instance of military whistleblower retaliation. Talking to Congress and the media after failing to get a sufficient response from those in the military, Adachi now faces demotion or termination of his 32-year military career. He alleges that his reprimands are a direct result of his whistleblowing; he told POGO that he “was punished for communicating the illegal use of taxpayer money for the purchase of military uniform items.” Despite a distinguished military career, he received three letters of reprimand shortly after revealing the violation of the Buy American Act to the IG. Oddly, the letters of reprimand did not refer to his whistleblowing, but to a years-old civilian harassment misdemeanor case which Adachi stated he brought to his superiors’ attention at the time of the ruling; the sudden attention to a minor offense from over four years ago seems suspect.

POGO has long fought for increased whistleblower protection, but Adachi’s case highlights that there is still work to be done. POGO is encouraged that enhanced protections for military whistleblowers have been included in both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act of FY 2014. We hope that those reforms will lead to improved protections for all military whistleblowers. Meanwhile, we support Adachi’s fight to ensure the military obeys contracting laws and to promote American manufacturers and contractors.

Image by Master Sgt. Steven Adachi.

By: Andrew Wyner
Intern, POGO

andrew-wyner Andrew Wyner is an intern for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Whistleblower Protections

Related Content: Defense, DOD Oversight

Authors: Andrew Wyner

Submitted by Kiko at: September 15, 2013
For what it's worth... the steel-toed boots I wore in the Navy in the 80's were made at Leavenworth. Said so right on the inside.
Submitted by Asap at: August 10, 2013
Thank you Master Sgt. Adachi. You are a stand-up American in every way! How is it that this man knows what "serving our country " means and politicians don't?
Submitted by DKH at: July 15, 2013
Is this why we are broke? Can't even get our Army to use American made goods - that's terrible!!!!!!!!!!!
Submitted by dada1111 at: July 13, 2013
thank you crooked government of ours may you all rot in hell
Submitted by Anonymous at: July 13, 2013
Please buy US made boots for all military personnel.
Submitted by shakker at: July 13, 2013
Communists said that capitalists would engage in business practices that destroy their own countries. China is a COMMUNIST country and we are funding their military by buying MILITARY supplies as well as most 'consumer' goods. What do YOU call politicians and government officials who destroy the US economy and support the Chinese military?
Submitted by Omen at: July 13, 2013
How naive to think that all the military spending would benefit the American People and not the profit of special interest. If we would have to fight WWII again to an equally developed rival we would get our butt kicked oh wait we do have a industrial military complex like Germany and they got their butt kicked when they stopped making the right strategic decision but try to protect the interest of the political military complex.
Submitted by Hoosier84 at: July 13, 2013
Right. If the Chinese cut off our footwear supply we'll have to surrender . . . Capitalism and competition are overrated and the deficit is a myth. What else would we waste that savings on anyway, feeding hungry kids? Buy American no matter what the cost in principles, or bankruptcy!
Submitted by Dfens at: July 4, 2013
As we heard from POGO during the sequestration debate, the DoD spent 10% less in 2007 but hired tens of thousands more Americans with that money. You don't replace soldiers or engineers with robots, but you can and the DoD certainly does replace these people with people from foreign countries all the time. Why should we even have to tell them to stop? It is pure insanity to outsource our defense.
Submitted by Jimbo at: July 2, 2013
Excellent article. My tax dollars should be supporting only American works!
Submitted by growltigerkat at: July 2, 2013
Will he have to look for asylum like Snowden and the white knight?
Submitted by Anonymous at: July 2, 2013
Now they know what we have to deal with in the real world. And its not just the time & inconvience but real money also, when you aren't incompliance.
Submitted by 1938marine at: July 2, 2013
I wish this man well. It has been my understanding that China has been making a lot of our military equipment for years including some ammunition, I just assumed that our bought out lawmakers passed laws to make it so. I've always said to those that would listen, "Do you really think that the Chinese will provide important equipment to us if an when there would be a bad disagreement?" This is good news, it would be better if our lawmakers will correct the mater with common sense.

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