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St. Petersburg defense firm raided by federal agents

ST. PETERSBURG — Federal agents early Wednesday raided Conax Florida Corp., a St. Petersburg defense contractor that provides equipment for the military and NASA.

Conax's three-building complex on 75th Street N closed for the day as agents from several federal agencies came and went carrying boxes and paper files.

"At this point, we're still trying to figure out what all they're after," said general manager Chet Claudon. "And we just don't know.''

A sign on the company's doors read: "Search warrant in progress, official business only beyond this point." The only activity in the front of the offices was the occasional T-shirted officer hurrying in and out of the front door.

The Defense Criminal Investigative Service executed the search warrant with the assistance of other agencies including: the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the offices of inspector general with NASA and the Department of Transportation.

At the scene, Brooke Harris, an agent with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, said the search warrant was part of an ongoing investigation. She declined to comment on the details of the search or on why the agents were at Conax.

Conax is best known for making safety devices, including life preservers that automatically inflate when they hit water. The company also makes aerospace products known as pyrovalves or pyrotechnical valves used mainly in spacecraft and rocketry. The life support branch is responsible for small restraints such as seat belts and ejection seat components.

Conax is the official, legal name of Cobham Life Support Systems, Claudon said. It is a division of British defense contractor Cobham.

Claudon anticipated being back in business today.

In an interview Wednesday, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, said he knows the company well and that it has a good record within the military.

"I was a little surprised because we've never had any suggestion that Conax was not performing properly and not doing what they were contracted to do," said Young, who has helped secure millions of dollars in federal contracts for the company.

The company moved its headquarters from Buffalo, N.Y., to Pinellas County in 1983. In 1987, the Navy awarded Conax an $8.2 million contract to produce 31,000 explosive devices that are used to automatically inflate a pilot's life vest when it enters water. At the time, the Department of Defense credited Conax equipment with helping save the lives of 180 Navy and Air Force pilots since 1981.

"We're working with NASA," Conax president Larry Thomas told the St. Petersburg Times in 1987. "They want to provide life-support for the space shuttle, and part of the system they want to use includes our equipment. It will be some type of device that keeps the astronauts afloat in the event they have another accident.''

In 1999, the company won a $1.5 million Navy contract to develop an automatic parachute-release system. If the pilot was unconscious, the release system would activate within moments to free the ejection seat from the parachute harness.

In 2007, Conax received a $7.5 million contract to provide seat belt kits for Army Humvees. Last year, Conax was awarded a $34 million Department of Defense contract for life support equipment. Young got the company $4 million for a restraint system and another $2.4 million for similar equipment, records show.

This year, Young got earmarks worth $3.2 million and $2.4 million. And in the current budget negotiations, he is seeking $4 million for a "belt tensioning" restraint system for Air Force aircraft platforms.

Several Conax employees have made individual contributions to Young's campaign from 2006 to 2008 adding up to more than $6,000. Claudon himself donated $600 in total.

Young said there is no relationship between the earmarks he has secured and the political contributions that Conax and its parent company have given him.

"My support was for what the Army needed, and this was a company that had proven it can provide it," he said.

In deciding to seek an earmark, he reviews the proposal then confers with the Defense Department, he said.

"If it looks legitimate to us and the Defense Department says, 'Yeah we really need that,' then we'll do that," he said.

Young said it was hard to say how serious the matter is until the details emerge, but again added that the company has performed well on its contracts.

Times news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Nicole Norfleet can be reached at nnorfleet@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8785.

FAST FACTS

Who is Conax?

. Conax is the official, legal name of Cobham Life Support Systems, a division of British defense contractor Cobham.

. The company moved to Pinellas County in 1983.

. It employs about 220 people at its complex at 2801 75th St. N in St. Petersburg.

. The company is best known for making safety devices for the military and NASA.

St. Petersburg defense firm raided by federal agents 07/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 12:27pm]

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