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Cory Mills landed in Congress like a grenade.
Literally: At the start of this term, the freshman Republican from Florida handed out 40 mm grenades stamped with a GOP elephant to congressional colleagues.
"I am eager to get to work with you on behalf of the American people," he wrote in an accompanying note.
The grenades were inert. But the stunt was in line with the type of guns-blazing, America-first rhetoric that Mills, an arms dealer, decorated Army combat veteran, and former military contractor, deployed during his campaign in Florida's 7th congressional district.
Mills, a co-founder of munitions manufacturer and security contractor Pacem Solutions, positioned himself as a defender of police departments under attack from the "woke" Biden administration. In a 2022 campaign ad, Mills said he "backs the blue" and bragged that his company sold the tear gas police used to suppress recent racial justice and abortion-rights protests.
What Mills didn't advertise was Pacem's munitions contracts with foreign governments. Instead, Mills has refused to publicly disclose his connections and dealings with powers abroad while at the same time sitting on two committees overseeing foreign affairs and military spending — as well as wielding the power to vote on foreign arms deals.
An Insider examination of his business dealings, though, found that Pacem has had deep ties to foreign governments and is struggling financially.
Pacem has repeatedly courted munitions deals with foreign governments over the course of its nearly decade-long existence. A Saudi government-affiliated national security expo promoted Pacem as one of its featured vendors in 2019, with Mills's face posted across the event's social media pages. Pacem also exhibited in Abu Dhabi that same year, at one of the largest weapons shows in the world.
A representative for Mills refused to disclose all of the countries Pacem has sold munitions to. But Insider was able to identify multiple foreign buyers. In one major contract from 2015, Pacem and a partner U.K. munitions firm inked a $228 million arms deal with Iraq. Mills confirmed that deal, saying it was facilitated by the U.S. Department of Defense and wasn't entirely paid out.
Pacem has sold munitions to Ukraine and Colombia in recent years, according to three sources familiar with the matter, though it's unclear if those sales are continuing.
A spokesperson for Mills did not respond to repeated requests for a full accounting of the congressman's foreign dealings through Pacem. The company's chief legal officer Joseph Schmitz said all of Pacem's foreign munitions sales are approved by the Department of State.
Although Mills told Insider he has divested from the company, he and his wife are still listed as executive chairs on the websites of Pacem Solutions and its subsidiary Pacem Defense. Schmitz refused to tell Insider who owned the company but said it would be incorrect to publish that Cory Mills, "owns 100% of Pacem Solutions and Pacem Defense."
Mills's influence over American military spending while having ties to a munitions company poses the potential for conflicts of interest, an ethics watchdog said.
"It's an obvious conflict of interest, a no-brainer to anyone with common sense," said Don Sherman, the senior vice president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning nonprofit advocating for government ethics reform.
Schmitz said that Mills's ties to Pacem are "being vetted" by the House Ethics Committee. "Everything is above-board," he told Insider. The ethics committee's general counsel declined to confirm whether it is currently working to resolve Mills's relationship with Pacem.
Pacem's troubled history
An explosion ripped through the humid air of a small Florida panhandle town mid-morning on September 14, 2018.
Employees at Amtec Less-Lethal Systems, a riot control munitions manufacturer in Perry, Florida, had been assembling flash-bang strips. The blast, which federal workplace safety inspectors indicated was possibly caused by static electricity leaping onto explosive powder, immediately killed one worker and injured another so severely that he died the next week.
One month later, Pacem Defense bought the business for $10 million. The explosion loomed over the start of Pacem's ownership of the facility. Repercussions from the incident have contributed to a slew of financial troubles dragging Pacem down.
Mills's involvement in the defense and munitions world evolved out of his years in the armed forces and work as a private military contractor. He served in the US Army from 1999 to 2003, according to his discharge paperwork. During that time he was sent to Kosovo and Iraq, and was awarded the Bronze Star.
Mills later spent four years as a military contractor for Dyncorp, where he worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to his LinkedIn profile. On the campaign trail and in media interviews he has described being "blown up twice" while on assignment there. He subsequently worked for federal contractors Chemonics International and Pax Mondial Ltd., before striking out on his own.
In 2014, Mills and his wife Rana Al Saadi, an Iraqi refugee who came to the US in 2008, founded Pacem. Mills described Pacem to Insider as a "turnkey solution," which encompasses global threat analysis, security services contracting, weapons sales, and training.
The company appeared intent on quickly establishing a global footprint in the years after its founding. Pacem "delivered millions of defense products around the world to some of the most challenging regions," including explosive cartridges for use in grenade launchers, according to a press release it issued in 2018. Early archived copies of Pacem Solutions's website mention work with international development groups like USAID and showed pictures from Ukraine, Pakistan, and Iraq, among other places. Another archived page showed Pacem with offices in Kabul, Baghdad and Islamabad.
But since the acquisition of Amtec, Pacem appears to have lost value. Pacem Solutions and Pacem Defense are together now worth anywhere between $10 million down to just $2 million, according to a financial disclosure Mills filed in January – equal to or less than the price Pacem paid for Amtec alone.
The Amtec explosion, which workplace safety inspectors concluded was caused by inadequate safety controls, cost Pacem.
Mills said the explosion, which occurred before Pacem acquired the company, underscored the need for a thorough intervention into Amtec's processes and facilities. Pacem poured at least $2 million into facility upgrades, Mills told a local news outlet, including improvements related to the explosion.
"We bought it knowing the company had issues, then we had our engineers redesign certain products that were not working well," Mills told Insider. Financially, COVID also "slowed things down tremendously," he added. In a statement, Mills's spokesperson also said Pacem didn't lay off any employees and gave small raises during the pandemic.
Pacem is also loaded with debt: It owes $48 million to a Canadian lender, nearly five times the company's highest potential valuation. Mills said the loan is funding research and development.
There are additional issues that have dogged the company. In the past two years, the munitions plant has been forced to shut down twice for failing to pay workers' compensation insurance premiums, according to Florida's Department of Workers Compensation.
Schmitz, Pacem's chief legal officer, confirmed the shutdowns but claimed the missed worker's compensation payments were an accidental oversight.
Money woes aren't Pacem's only problem. In December 2020, the company blew up or burned several boxes of hazardous waste, according to two people familiar with the incident and a report from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The agency cited Pacem for improper storage and disposal of the waste.
Schmitz, the company's chief legal officer, told Insider that Pacem self-reported the incident and that it wasn't a "big deal," with "no environmental impact."
International arms trader
Mills's congressional campaign played up Pacem's contracts with local law enforcement, claiming that the "liberal media is crying" about the company supplying tear gas that was used against racial justice protesters. These local law enforcement contracts represent the bulk of Pacem's client volume, Mills told Insider.
But a review of Pacem's contracts suggests its dealings with law enforcement are relatively small-dollar. The company sold roughly $1.3 million worth of tear gas to police departments between 2018 and mid-2021, it reported to a congressional oversight committee. The company sells other products to police departments, like flash bangs, that Congress didn't ask about.
The size of those hundreds of tear-gas transactions pales in comparison to just one foreign arms deal identified by Insider.
In 2015, Pacem, in partnership with UK weapons dealer Chemring, signed a contract with the Iraqi government worth $228 million. The deal would have represented nearly 2.5% of the country's entire military expenditures that year, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks military spending.
Pacem never received the full value of the contract, Mills said, which was intended to provide "certain types of support in launching counteroffensives against ISIS to drive them out of Iraq," he said. ISIS was pushed out of key Iraqi cities before the contract was supposed to close, according to Mills.
In 2016, an Iraqi auditing agency raised questions about whether it had overpaid for Pacem's services. Iraq's interior ministry "accepted the pricing and the specs supplied by the company for the product, without forming a technical committee, or asking any of the official trusted consultants to write up specs and details of pricing that are up to date before moving forward to the contract procedure," Iraq's Federal Board of Supreme Audit wrote. Mills said the contracting process was above-board and overseen in part by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Pacem's overseas presence extends past the Iraq deal. The company has an office in Dubai, and in 2015 also had offices in Islamabad and Kabul, according to an archived version of Pacem's website. Mills's wife, Rana, who is described on Pacem's website as the company's executive chairwoman, is the CEO of another Dubai-based company, Abdeen DMCC, according to her LinkedIn page. It's not clear what Abdeen does, and Rana did not respond to questions about Pacem's ownership or Abdeen DMCC.
On its website, Pacem says it is "registered" to "legally work" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kurdistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Kenya, Somaliland, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazil, Malaysia, and Dubai. Pacem appeared at the 2019 Saudi National Security and Risk Prevention Expo, an arms and defense sales convention, and the same year was an exhibitor at IDEX, a massive five-day weapons show in Abu Dhabi.
Pacem appears to have invested in the Amtec facility at least in part to manufacture weapons for sale abroad, not at home. Mills wrote to a federal regulator in 2019 that he had upgraded Pacem's munitions plant in order to "manufacture a new energetic product that will serve our allies around the world."
Before Pacem bought Amtec, Amtec had delivered on contracts for ammunition worth about $5.6 million with federal agencies, including the Defense Department and Bureau of Prisons. Since the acquisition closed in 2018, Pacem has only delivered $314,110 worth of munitions and consulting services to the U.S. government, according to a federal contracting database. Some federal contracts are classified and may not be disclosed.
In Congress, Mills sits on the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees, which oversee military spending and foreign weapons sales.
Mills's oversight role "could have a huge impact on his business, his competitors writ large," Sherman said. But as it stands, there is no requirement for him to reveal the extent of his dealings with foreign governments.
The arms dealer in Congress
Mills leaned heavily on his endorsement from former president Donald Trump during his congressional campaign. Echoing Trump's election denial and anti-immigrant views, he voiced support for a temporary ban on immigration to the United States and told the Orlando Sentinel that he didn't view the Biden administration as legitimate.
In Congress, Mills has sought to position himself as someone who understands American involvement in foreign conflicts from the ground up and align himself with Republicans who are skeptical of US military involvement abroad. He has excoriated the Biden administration for what he's described as its botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, and opposed additional American aid to Ukraine.
Before he was even sworn in, Mills appeared alongside Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz at a December 2022 press conference touting a resolution to audit US funding for the war in Ukraine.
"We should not go around thinking that we're always the world's police, and have the answers," Mills said at the press conference, warning of the potential for "nuclear escalation" in Ukraine and an "axis of evil" between Russia, China and Iran.
Mills also recently voted for an ill-fated resolution sponsored by Gaetz that would've ordered President Biden to withdraw US troops from Syria, joining a coalition of intervention-skeptical Republicans and progressives.
He's also waded into the culture wars, introducing a bill aimed at preventing the supposed distribution of sexual material in schools.
But so far, months into his freshman term, he's still best known for his grenades.