By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK, June 7 (Reuters) - A dispute involving a gun industry executive who claims he was fired after being falsely accused of bringing his weapons to work offers a peek into Freedom Group, the gun-making conglomerate owned by Cerberus Capital Management LP.
The battle unfolding in Manhattan federal court concerns Advanced Armament Corp LLC, a maker of silencers that is one of the smaller businesses within Freedom Group, which also owns iconic brands such as Bushmaster and Remington Arms.
Cerberus put Freedom Group up for sale last year after a Bushmaster rifle was used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
In December 2011, Advanced Armament fired its founder, Kevin Brittingham, for taking his personal guns, as well as a grenade launcher, to work in violation of company policy and federal firearms laws, according to court papers filed by the company.
Brittingham sued Advanced Armament and Remington last year. He claims there was no evidence he brought weapons to work and says the companies are trying to avoid paying him millions of dollars under an agreement reached when he sold his company to Freedom Group in 2009. Brittingham did receive $10.16 million as part of the sale.
In a May 30 court filing, Brittingham accused the companies of resorting to “shameless character assassinations” in an effort to distract U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest, who is presiding over the case. A trial is to start on June 17.
Cerberus referred questions to Freedom Group. Freedom Group declined multiple requests for comment. Remington, as well as Brittingham and his lawyers, did not reply to requests for comment.
Brittingham founded Advanced Armament in 1994 and has been collecting firearms since he was 19, according to a deposition he gave in the case.
His relationship with Freedom Group deteriorated almost immediately after Remington, backed by Freedom Group, bought Advanced Armament, according to court papers.
Soon after the deal closed, Remington shut down Advanced Armament for a month after it discovered that some of Advanced Armament’s suppliers did not have federal firearms licenses, in violation of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requirements, according to court papers submitted by Advanced Armament and Remington.
George Semonick, an ATF spokesman, could not confirm or deny the violations.
Around the time of Brittingham’s termination, the company said it discovered 43 firearms belonging to him on its premises, including “machine guns, a grenade launcher, silencers and a short barreled shotgun,” Advanced Armament and Remington said in court papers seeking to dismiss Brittingham’s lawsuit.
In response, Brittingham blames Remington and Freedom Group for failing to establish policies to ensure the company’s compliance with regulations.
Freedom Group and Cerberus were looking to expand both Advanced Armament’s business and the market for silencers in general, according to depositions in the lawsuit.
“Now that we have cleared the decks we have a huge responsibility to defend and GROW AAC,” then-Freedom Group CEO Robert Nardelli wrote in a January 2012 note to Remington officials a month after Brittingham’s termination, according to an exhibit Brittingham’s lawyers submitted.
A spokesman for Nardelli, who stepped down from Freedom Group and other roles he served for Cerberus in March 2012, declined to comment.
Brittingham contends that Freedom Group was particularly interested in expanding Advanced Armament into “the emerging military market, initially in special operations and eventually the larger military.”
Advanced Armament’s “key customers” included the Israel Defense Forces and “classified U.S. Special Operations groups,” according to a 2010 email from Jason Schauble, a former Remington official who helped lead the Advanced Armament deal for Freedom Group, to Nardelli and several other executives. The email was included in court papers that Advanced Armament and Remington submitted.
A representative of the IDF did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Freedom Group promised to provide the company with the resources to “make the commercial silencer world larger,” in part by working to legalize silencers for hunting through lobbying, according to a deposition by Schauble. Schauble, contacted by email, declined to comment.
Silencers are legal in 39 states, according to the ATF’s Semonick.
Advanced Armament banded with other silencer manufacturers in recent years to form the American Silencer Association to lobby state legislatures and to try to improve the industry’s image. The group’s website, which features pictures of hunters aiming silencer-tipped rifles, says that silencers improve shooting accuracy and protect hearing, among other benefits.
Earlier this year the group achieved a victory when Wyoming Republican Governor Matt Mead signed into law a bill the group supported that will allow hunters to use silencers. However, Montana Democratic Governor Steve Bullock in May vetoed a similar bill.
The American Silencer Association did not return requests seeking comment.
The case is Random Ventures Inc et al v. Advanced Armament Corp LLC et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-06792.