Federal raid on plant has residents worried
LBK Ranch, a private hunting preserve owned by William Kuchera in Croyle Township, about 20 miles away from the Kuchera Defense Systems plant at Windber.
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WINDBER, Pa. â€" Federal agents swarmed over the Kuchera Defense Systems plant, taking trucks full of documents, disks full of computer records and names of employees, then vanished, leaving this town of 4,000 confused, wondering and a bit fearful.
"This may turn out to be nothing and it may turn out to be something," said J. Ted Hollern, one of the businessmen who count brothers William and Ronald Kuchera as civic assets â€" men who staked everything in 1985 to create a high-tech business that has grown into Windber's second-largest employer.
Be it something or nothing, this Somerset County town worries about the damage.
The Jan. 22 raid shut down the plant for a day. In a place that saw unemployment topping 20 percent in the 1980s in the region's last big recession, when the local steel and mining industries collapsed, there was a collective sigh of relief when Kuchera reopened for business the following morning.
"Windber and Somerset County certainly doesn't want to lose â€" what is it, 300 jobs?" said Dan Miller, a local car salesman.
Agents from the FBI, IRS and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, rushed the plant on the edge of this former coal town as Kuchera's 300 employees showed up for work on a Thursday morning. Agents also searched the brothers' homes as well as the LBK Ranch, a private hunting preserve owned by William Kuchera in Croyle, about 20 miles away from the plant.
By day's end, agents were gone and in the ensuing days even the local grapevine has been devoid of a plausible theory for what prompted the raid.
Much of the speculation centers on the company's multi-million dollar federal defense contracts, among the hundreds of millions steered into this region by its powerful congressman, John P. Murtha, a Democrat from neighboring Johnstown. Kuchera began as a modest, computer-based business in 1985 and has since grown into a major contractor that does work on weapon guidance systems and recently developed a bomb-searching robot for the defense department.
The Kucheras have been supporters of the congressman, with the family donating roughly $24,000 over the past five years â€" an amount not unusual for a defense contractor. Mr. Murtha has received far more from firms such as Grumman and Johnstown-based Concurrent Technologies Corp.
Mr. Murtha's office said it has not been contacted by any investigative agencies and noted that 36 of the firm's 37 defense contracts were won on open bids.
"These are two of the best men I can think of," said one Kuchera manager who escorted a reporter from the property.
Neither of the brothers responded to interview requests.
The Kucheras, who both reside just over the border in adjoining Cambria County, have helped spur local businesses large and small. Mimo's restaurant regularly sees a flow of Kuchera employees on lunch break.
Likewise, Bob Rovder, a deliveryman for a Chinese restaurant in neighboring Richland, said the plant is a regular stop for him on Tuesdays.
"It houses a lot of jobs," he said. "It was good for $40, $50 in food orders. I can't think of anything bigger in Windber."
In fact, the local hospital, once a tiny affair that verged on extinction, has become a center for research as well as the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center, a federal earmark-backed facility named for the congressman's wife. The medical complex employs roughly 450 people, according to Mr. Hollern.
While Kuchera Industries and related Kuchera Defense Systems were well-known to the locals, the LBK Ranch, named for Bill Kuchera and his wife, Lena, in Cambria County came as a surprise to many.
"I didn't know about it until I read about it in the paper," said Mr. Hollern. "I had no knowledge something like that existed."
The ranch originally was set up on 161 acres of woodland as a profit-making game preserve where well-heeled visitors could pay to hunt and shoot trophy game.
It is ringed by a high, green fence dotted with signs reading "No Trespassing ... U.S. Govt. Test Facility."
Neighbors were at a loss to explain those signs.
"That's the fishy part of it all. They put those signs up. Those signs say government test facility," said Norman Long, who runs a farm equipment repair shop down the road from LBK.
Mr. Long said he used to hunt on the same tract when it was owned by John Costello, a local businessman who sold it to William Kuchera several years ago for about $800,000.
Both Norman Long and his son, Ray, said the first glimpse they had of the home William Kuchera remodeled and expanded on the site of the ranch was an aerial shot taken by a television news helicopter the day of the raid.
The LBK Ranch was the scene of a political fundraiser for Mr. Murtha in August.
Dennis McGlynn, an attorney for the Kucheras, said the brothers are unaware of any discrepancies in their books and had no idea what the authorities are looking for.
"Kuchera Defense Systems Inc. and Kuchera Industries Inc. would like to assure its employees, customers and the community that they are fully operating and are fulfilling all of their contractual obligations," Mr. McGlynn said in a statement released after the raids. "In addition, the companies will continue to cooperate with the government."
First Published January 31, 2009 12:13 am