Reflections: What is at stake in our Oregon vets’ claims against KBR

Today’s Oregonian includes this thoughtful editorial about what is at stake in our on-going case against KBR for Oregon National Guard Soldiers. I have to agree with the editorial board that what is at issue is more than whether and how KBR will be required to repair the damage done.  In the case, we can only recover money. That money can only be used to fix what can be fixed,  to help where money can provide help, and to make up for all the losses that cannot be fixed or solved with help.

Still the case is wider and deeper and raises questions about war and contracting and profits.

The latest round of revelations indicate that the government agreed to indemnify KBR for financial losses it might incur as a result of its misconduct in performing work under the Project RIO contract.  If that sounds like gobbledygook, maybe it’s easier to explain this way. In addition to the multi-billion dollar payday, KBR wanted and got a taxpayer bailout for whatever harms might be caused by its misconduct.

The legal team representing the soldiers focuses on their needs. We have a court room and a trial. We are traveling around the world to find evidence and get our witnesses. We are digging through tens of thousands of pages of documents. We hold the line and fight KBR when it seeks immunity or special treatment.  At trial we will put on the evidence, make our arguments and then leave it to the jury to deliberate and decide.

Meanwhile, it is good that Oregonians are asking these questions. Better still, our journalists and thinkers and our Congressional delegation have their teeth into their respective parts of this tragedy. That is good as well, as no one wants our vets to go quietly into the night.

Addendum (2 Sept 2010): Here is a video report on KGW8 News that ran yesterday. Nice to see that Rep. Blumenauer is on this.  For those who say Congress does nothing, you better believe that the Oregon vets appreciate the efforts made by Sen. Wyden, Sen. Merkley, Rep. Blumenauer, and Rep. Schrader.

US Army refuses to disclose KBR indemnification agreement to Rep. Blumenauer

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D. Or.) has done his part to get to the bottom of the sad story of Oregon National Guard soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals at the KBR Qarmat Ali facility. Rep. Blumenauer previously asked the Secretary of Defense to provide information about the agreements–both for KBR and other contractors.

In today’s Oregonian, Julie Sullivan reports here that the Army has refused to produce the information because it remains confidential. The response from the Army is a bit perplexing. The Project RIO contract, which was declassified, contains an indemnification provision. So I can’t help but wonder what is classified. Maybe there are other documents the Army is withholding?

It’s all a bit curious.

The soldiers appreciate Rep.  Blumenauer’s efforts. He is helping to get to the bottom of things.  He’s raising important questions about government contracts, and contractors and oversight.

For my part, I remain focused on KBR.  That’s my job.  Lots of work ahead to prepare for trial. But we’re on it.

Judge Papak denies KBR’s Motions to Dismiss-Again

In a ground-breaking opinion issued hours ago, Magistrate Judge Paul Papak denied KBR’s motions to dismiss in Bixby v. KBR. I’ve attached a pdf copy of the opinion here: 89 – Opinion and Order

For law geeks: It’s a detailed opinion addressing subject matter jurisdiction that touches on political question doctrine, derivative sovereign immunity, and combat activities under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

I am pleased. So are our vets who I represent. It’s a good day. But there is still far to go.

Onward.

New Report: For-profit trade school misconduct

The Government Accounting Office released its report today,  GAO Report For Profit Colleges (pdf), highlighting a number of abuses by for-profit trade schools.  The GAO engaged in undercover testing to ferret out the fraud and abuse in for-profit admissions and lending.  Pretty scary stuff.

The GAO Report notes that approximately 2,000 for-profit colleges received federal funds of $24 billion in the 2008-2009 school year. At all 15 of the for-profit schools surveyed by GAO, admissions representatives made deceptive and questionable statements about graduation, employment and financial aid.

I’ve been laboring in a trade school class action against Career Education Corp. and Western Culinary Institute, which is now known as Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland.  I’m not particularly surprised by the GAO findings. Maybe the GAO report will spur Congress to take a hard look at these issues. That would be a good thing because we have sentenced a generation of kids to a lifetime of debt.

My view is that the current crisis stems from a nasty mix of deregulation and privatization. Give for-profit schools nearly boundless access to federal money. At the same time, do not regulate their conduct. Those were the first steps to sentencing a generation to a lifetime of debt.

Question: Will we be able to fix this thing, or are we just content to continue fiddling while Rome burns?

New information resource for Oregon consumers

Kind of excited to see that the Oregon Consumer web page has gotten its sea legs and is publishing.  Here is the link for some interesting information on a wide range of consumer issues. I’ll be monitoring and noting some of their published reports. My hope is that the web page realizes its potential,  as we consumer advocates need all the help we can get.

KBR Op-ed piece in The Oregonian: Now that’s interesting.

Yesterday, The Oregonian published this interesting piece in the Sunday opinion section. I have a number of reactions, but I think I’ll let it sit for now. My grandmother taught me the value of manners; one of her cardinal rules is that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

That’s not a rule that we honor in the courtroom where we will have a few things to say. The short version is that I’ll be interested to hear Mr. Williams’ answers to a few questions after he is placed under oath. But now is not the time, and this is not the place.

For those following this case, I’m simply noting yesterday’s publication so that you’re aware that it hasn’t escaped our attention. There will be a time and a place for testing some of the more wild assertions in the linked piece.

Another day in the KBR litigation

Yesterday, Mike Doyle and I appeared in U.S. District Court here in Oregon to argue against dismissal of 26 Oregon National Guard soldiers’ toxic exposure claims against Kellogg Brown and Root.

Judge Papak heard oral argument for close to an hour and half. As always, he was well prepared with tough questions for both sides. Oral argument in his courtroom isn’t so much about arguing the motions as answering his questions.  He really knows how to push and challenge both sides. I have to say that I welcome the challenge of stepping into his courtroom.

KBR claims that it is entitled to a dismissal because: 1) The political question doctrine prevents the court from reviewing the actions of the contractor; 2) KBR, as a government contractor, is immune from claims due to derivative sovereign immunity; and 3) KBR is immune because of the combatant activities exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The soldiers made extensive arguments on all three motions. To prepare the briefs, we reviewed approximately 50,000 pages of documents and took depositions of Army and KBR witnesses in Houston, Dallas and St. Louis. The briefing is voluminous. The issues are complicated. But it seems to come down to KBR claiming that even though it was paid $7 billion on a secret, no bid, cost plus contract, its conduct falls outside the review of our justice system.

We’re waiting for Judge Papak’s ruling on these motions.  The case is on hold until he issues his decision.

Mom called

I’m at home this evening with two computers going side by side. On the desktop, I have a  several thousand page PDF of Army FOIA documents open, as I wade through KBR discovery. My laptop is up with a running digest of the interesting tidbits.  It’s my own odd-duck style of learning the case.

The phone rings, and I answer it absentmindedly.

“David Sugerman?,” asks the woman on the other side brightly.

“Yes?”

She runs on without a pause about how she’s calling to thank me for my great work and wondering whether she can help. Can she send money, or bake cookies, or weed my yard?

I stammer, “Who is this?” I have the presence of mind to not ask her how she got my number or why she’s calling a stranger out of the blue.

She chuckles lightly, “I’m just a Mom.”

“And why are you calling?”

“Because your work makes Portland great. And besides those guys are killers.”

Might be the exhaustion, or maybe it’s that I’ve lately been reflecting on my mother and wondering what she would have said about her son’s latest work. But for whatever reason, I was practically moved to tears.

Turns out that she had collapsed two people into one. She thought that Stu Sugarman, a Portland civil rights and criminal defense attorney, and I were the same person. It happens now and then…. I corrected her. And she STILL wanted to help and to send money. She wondered what she could do.

So this is what I said. “Do something great that you think matters and then drop me a line to tell me what you did.” She liked that.

A few thoughts before I go back to the mind-numbing document review.  There are some days when I know that I am blessed or–if you prefer–profoundly fortunate.  This is one.

So Mom, your call was a boost. Hope you don’t mind that I’m putting it down here. I imagine doing so will help me remember this moment as we trudge on toward trial.

Thanks and love-Just a son

Interesting: Souter takes on originalists at Harvard

For those who watch the U.S. Supreme Court, a theory of constitutional interpretation–so-called “originalism”–is now in vogue. The theory, which is often mouthed by politicians, suggests that the only way to interpret the U.S. Constitution is to look at what the founders wanted and thought and felt back when they wrote the document.

It’s got simplistic appeal, even if it’s a fairly goofy notion. It’s goofy, in that history is rarely anything if not subjective, such that anyone who claims to know what the founders thought centuries ago is necessarily guessing. Sometimes it’s an educating guess, but it’s a guess all the same. As well, it presumes that all should be set in stone, without considering the tremendous changes brought over the centuries by technology, population growth, culture and the like.

Maybe I can explain what I mean better by asking this simple question: What would Thomas Jefferson or James Madison have thought about Google? Originalists claim to be able to apply the founders’ intentions to free speech issues in the Google-era. I think that’s fanciful at best. “My answer, for what it’s worth, is, “Who knows?!”

Originalist thinking seems to go beyond constitutional adjudication. For that reason, the airy concepts are more important to consumers than we might realize.

So all of that is background for big props to CBS legal correspondent Andrew Cohen, a Twitter friend, who wrote this thoughtful piece on Justice Souter’s commencement speech at Harvard. Justice Souter, who retired recently, takes a reality-driven view of the constitution. He understands that much of work of constitutional interpretation is difficult because the values embodied in the constitution co-exist in tension. That tension creates ambiguity, which is necessarily at odds with originalists and sound-bite politicians whose world is black and white.

I’m a fan. If the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court matter to you, it’s worth a read. Hats off to Andrew Cohen for noting and explaining what many of us missed.

Addendum: Link to the text of the Souter speech…I would credit a particular Philadelphia rock star lawyer who passed it along, but that would be wrong for reasons I can’t begin to explain.