The People vs. Mike Huddleston
Here’s the story of how one industry player survived the wrath of disgruntled employees and federal agencies.
Meet Mike Huddleston, the Al Capone of the finishing industry, if you believe what the U.S. government says.
“They’ve made me out to be the biggest criminal around,” says Huddleston, owner of Protech Metal Finishing in Vonore, Tennessee.
In 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee indicted Huddleston and an employee on six counts of defrauding the U.S. Department of Defense of more than $1.2 million on a government contract to apply nickel plating to ammunition racks for the U.S. Army.
This came after a three-year investigation by agents and divisions of the FBI, the U.S. EPA, the IRS, the DoD, the U.S. Department of Energy and a few Tennessee state agencies. In 2015 alone, he says his 35-employee shop was visited 40 times by agents, who sometimes brought 10 to 15 other people with them to look at his records, go through his facility and interrogate his employees. He says they even visited and searched his home, too.
According to the indictment, Protech defrauded the Army by (I kid you not) applying electroless nickel without proper phosphorous concentrations; not plating to the proper thickness; not heat-treating parts sufficiently; not properly testing for plating thickness; and failing to reject or rework parts that did not meet specifications.
“It was a nightmare,” he says. “I had never been arrested for anything in my life. This was all unreal to me.”
Why were a half-dozen agencies going after the 63-year-old Tennessean? It’s complex, but Huddleston says it all began in 2006 when he bought Protech. He had been a customer of the shop and had heard it was about to go out of business. He paid about $4 million for the operation and continued to employ a few of the existing managers to help with the transition.
Huddleston says he eventually had to terminate a few of those employees to get costs in line. Soon after, the FBI, EPA, IRS and other agencies showed up at his door, telling him that accusations had been made about shoddy work done on the contact to plate the Army parts and that he was dumping waste into a local river.
“I was so naïve that I didn’t see all that was about to hit me in the face,” Huddleston says. “I thought I could just show them none of it was true, but it never ended. They kept coming back and coming back, and never found anything, and yet every few days or weeks, they would come back and go through everything again. I had to hire lawyers to deal with all of this.”
Full disclosure: I knew someone was trying to smear Huddleston and Protech, because yours truly also had received several emails from people claiming that he was up to no good (and was probably behind the Lindberg kidnapping, too). We sometimes get emails that smell like they come from disgruntled employees, but these were fairly putrid.
Then Huddleston did something he now calls “stupid:” He visited his congressman and asked him to help stop the harassment. That congressman wrote a letter to the head of the EPA requesting it discontinue bothering Huddleston if he had done nothing wrong. The indictments were handed down a short time later.
I have never met Huddleston, but I am telling you about him because Protech made the Products Finishing Top Shop Benchmarking Survey list of the best shops in North America. I had read about the indictments and thought there was fire where there was smoke. Plus, there was, indeed, literally a fire: In April 2017, Huddleston’s facility burned to the ground after an oven motor overheated. The insurance company investigated and paid up, and he is rebuilding.
I was curious as to how a shop could be indicted and burn to the ground, and yet still earn Nadcap certification, which happened a few months ago after his employees set up a temporary line to run parts for the inspectors. To qualify for his Top Shops distinction, Huddleston supplied us with data that went back 12 months before the April fire. We can’t argue against numbers, and we can’t discount the shop passing the Nadcap inspection. But I wanted to know more about this guy and why he had so much misfortune.
That six-count indictment for defrauding the government vaporized just as quickly as it materialized. With little evidence to show he had defrauded anyone, the feds still threatened to keep him in court for a decade or more, and Huddleston says that would have ruined him financially. So, this past January, he pled guilty to illegally storing hazardous waste without a permit. His punishment: three years of probation and a $100 fine. It seems the judge decreed that nominal amount after sensing that the feds had overreached—probably the only thing right that happened in all of this.
I asked Huddleston why he didn’t just take the insurance settlement from the fire and walk away. Why rebuild in an industry that gets targeted so much? His answer was succinct:“Not just no, but hell no. First, I love the finishing industry. Second, walking away would have be made me look guilty. I’m stubborn as hell, and I fight for my reputation. We’re going to rebuild and be stronger than ever.”