AAFES merchandise may be auctioned to settle suit
Stars and Stripes August 4, 2006
PORDENONE, Italy — A former Aviano Air Base employee seeking 22,000 euros from the U.S. government might end up collecting via a court-sanctioned auction of merchandise seized from the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.
Mauro Martin, an Italian, worked at Aviano as a bus driver and motor pool dispatcher from 1975 to 1991. According to his lawyer, Roberto Russi, when Martin was laid off in 1991 the base — or those paying the bills on the U.S. side — violated Italian law regarding payment of money that was due him.
Under his contract, Martin was owed a series of payments, Russi said. He also owed money to a bank. Although Italian law states that an employer can give no more than 20 percent of what an employee is owed to a creditor under such situations, the U.S. gave the bank all the money it owed Martin.
Martin filed suit to claim what he said was owed him under the law’s provisions.
According to Russi, that amount was about 11 million lire — or approximately 7,000 euros (about $8,750) in today’s money. The amount has since increased as a result of interest and court and legal costs, he said.
“It is not a good situation,” Russi said of his client’s case, which he says the U.S. has fought in court — and repeatedly lost — and then tried to ignore.
Asked Thursday for its version of events and any possible actions that might be taken, the base sent an e-mail response that essentially matched Russi’s history of the case. The statement did not say why the United States had failed to make payments or settle the case. It said the U.S. Department of Justice “is actively working this case.”
Russi has been Martin’s lawyer for a few years. Armed with multiple rulings won by his predecessors in Martin’s favor, Russi petitioned an Italian court in the nearby provincial seat Pordenone to ask the base — or the U.S. government — to honor the court rulings. An officer of the court served paperwork on July 20, giving the base 10 days to pay up.
Once that time expired, Russi and the court representative tried a different approach.
Prohibited from entering the base (and thus taking property from it), Russi found out about an AAFES warehouse in the industrial area of Aviano. A delegation including Russi and the court representative — watched by Italian police and their American counterparts — took stock of the warehouse content and put a hold on a large quantity of merchandise. According to Russi, that includes refrigerators, mattresses, washing machines, barbecue grills, prefabricated furniture and a riding lawn mower.
If the legal issue isn’t resolved, a company from the Venice suburb of Mestre will take possession of the items on Aug. 12.
The money earned would go to pay Martin and to defray costs of the court proceedings and the auction.
Mike Brennan, the AAFES store manager at Aviano and acting general manager for Italy, said customers and operations haven’t been affected. He referred all other questions to the military.
Russi, interviewed in his Pordenone office, said taking on the U.S. in Italy is not easy. And he said lawyers in Italy don’t generally have the same ability to gather information that their counterparts in the States do. So he said he and his client — who is married to an American — gathered information for a couple of years, looking for a solution.
Though Martin has no stake against AAFES, the off-base warehouse provided an opportunity. Russi said some might quibble about whether AAFES is the same as the U.S. government. He and the court do not.
“For us, (AAFES) is America,” he said.
Martin’s case languished in relative anonymity for years, but is now attracting national attention in Italy. Part of that is due to a rumor that Russi had tried to essentially put a lien on one of the base’s F-16 aircraft until his client is paid. Russi smiled at hearing that, but said it was never a serious attempt, and implied that the Italian and U.S. governments wouldn’t allow it.
A court in Pordenone originally issued a verdict in Martin’s favor in 1992. It was upheld on appeal in 1994. Another appeal in Rome in 1998 again went against the U.S.
“At every level, they tell us we are right,” Russi said.
Russi said the company running the auction would determine where and when to sell the goods. It could decide to use the warehouse complex itself. In any event, Americans would be free to bid on the goods.