I’m not a flag waver. Never have been. Like the vast majority of Americans, I have treated Veterans Day as one of those days in the fall that I might have off from work. No thought to the meaning; no thought to the sacrifices that lie beneath.
That changed in a profound way last year when I agreed to help sick soldiers and vets from the Oregon Army National Guard’s 1/162. These men were poisoned by exposures to sodium dichromate while providing security to KBR and Halliburton employees. They came back hurt and sick.
In working on their legal team, I’ve come to learn about the soldiers and vets and their families. Their sacrifices are so great. They served for all the right reasons. And now they are wounded and hurting.
Seems to me that every vet deserves our appreciation today. For those who have come back from service broken and hurt, we the people owe them. And for those who are broken and hurt because a greedy contractor violated safety rules in pursuit of profits, well, let’s just say that I’m doing my best to make sure your day of reckoning comes.
The New York Times reports here on the Kaplan schools woes. The Times goes to great lengths to note that its competitor, The Washington Post, owns Kaplan. I suppose some might see it as a dig and turn of the knife, but it strikes me as appropriate because it helps explain how the owners of the Post lobby against trade school regulation.
The article focused on the Kaplan criminal justice degree program. I was struck by this quote from a former Kaplan insider:
“In reality *** , graduates would often get the same $8 to $9-an-hour security guard jobs they could have had without Kaplan training.”
It sounds awfully familiar, as it is the same thing we’ve seen repeatedly in our consumer class action against Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-Portland. There is so much more about it that is insidious, including absorbing federal dollars that would otherwise go to student aid.
The for-profits spend a boatload of money on marketing and advertising. That money comes from tuition, and tuition dollars come straight out of the treasury.
It’s a lousy deal.
We’re still pushing forward on the culinary school case. Nice to see that responsible journalists are reporting on abusive trade schools. As for the Washington Post, you have to wonder.
Remember the terms and conditions or subscriber agreement or other agreement you signed or accepted when you signed up for cell service, cable TV, a bank account, a credit card or just about any of the other transactions consumers enter everyday? If you’re like 99.9 percent of all consumers, you don’t remember it all. Chances are you didn’t read the long and technical terms that appear as part of the transaction. You wanted to buy the goods, so you signed.
It’s very likely that the terms included a mandatory arbitration clause. The case focuses on whether that mandatory arbitration can prohibit class actions for consumers.
Some consumer problems involve big businesses engaging in small rip offs. We all know that a $10 rip off simply isn’t worth pursuing when doing so is expensive, timely and risky. But what if that small rip off of $10 applies to all customers, say a million people? The business pockets $10 million illegally.
When you’re dealing with the nickel and dime consumer rip off, an individual consumer simply can’t obtain relief. One way consumers can fight back is through the consumer class action. The individual can’t bring a $10 case, but a class action allows consumers to chase the $10 million in illegally pocketed money, when a million consumers lose $10 each.
AT&T Mobility and their friends, Comcast and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, want that to change. They want a rule that allows companies to ban class actions and require you to take your case to arbitration as an individual. So that $10 rip off will never be remedied. And AT&T Mobility and its friends will be able to pocket and keep millions by only taking a small amount from each consumer.
The stakes only went up with the changes in Congress last week. If the Supreme Court incorrectly interprets a statute, like the Federal Arbitration Act, Congress can amend the statute to correct the error. Sadly, consumers lost some of their best friends in Congress in the last election. So we should not count on Congress to bail out consumers if the Supreme Court sides with big business.
One of my favorite movies, The Life of Brian, ends with a great song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
For now, I’m simply whistling that tune and hoping that things go okay. Guess we’ll deal with the carnage if the Court gives the Chamber of Commerce the victory it so badly wants.
Yesterday, we filed an updated complaint in Bixby v. KBR. Here’s a copy Bixby Fourth amended complaint. The new complaint adds Halliburton defendants.
For those interested, here’s what happened. The legal team representing the sick veterans made Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Army. It took a long time to get the requested documents, but we did. Once we reviewed them, we learned that Halliburton had been at the site pumping water at Qarmat Ali.
Additional documents produced at the same time suggest that Halliburton and KBR were actually bringing sodium dichromate to Qarmat Ali and using it for water pumping. That would be a big additional problem for them.
There is much more to the update, but I wanted to post this for those who are interested.
My friend and colleague, Portland attorney Josh Shulman, flagged this op-ed in today’s New York Times on trade school regulation. The author teaches at both traditional non-profit colleges and for-profit programs. It provides a clear explanation of the need for the gainful employment rule. The message isn’t new, but the messenger is uniquely qualified based on his work experience.
Why is the for-profit trade school industry so strongly opposed to these common sense reforms? What exactly is wrong with a rule that conditions taxpayer-funded federal aid on a program that produces valuable job skills without straddling the student with insurmountable debts? We know the horror stories. It’s time to clean up this mess.
In late summer–and with much fanfare–it looked like Congress and the Department of Education would finally address the outrageous abuses of bad actors in the for-profit education sector. Predictably, the pace has slowed to a crawl, with Department of Education delaying the promulgation of regulations.
Do you need to wonder why?
According to this report, most of the push back from Congress came from members who received campaign contributions from for-profit trade schools.
Most of the dispute focuses on the Department of Education’s proposed gainful employment rule. The gainful employment rule would put the brakes on bad actors in the for-profit trade school industry. The rules would limit federal student loan monies for those programs that saddle students with debts that cannot be reasonably repaid with degrees granted by the institutions. Hmm…expensive degrees with heavy debt loads qualifying students for jobs that won’t allow them to pay off the debts. This sounds so familiar.
So there are many advantages to chasing KBR witnesses around the globe. One is getting out to see new and different places. And that’s part of my mantra as I get oriented on the ground in Doha.
I left Portland Friday morning our time, and traveled for about 24 hours, arriving in Doha, Qatar Saturday night. I was a bit dazed, but that’s to be expected.
The heat here is remarkable, but the humidity even more so. I’ve been in the tropics, and I can say that this is probably more uncomfortable. But of course, the legal team is surrounded by comforts, as we lay in at the Sheraton. Still, the distance, time changes, and climate give the legal team a minor taste of what our soldier-clients faced when they came here.
My driver told me on the way from the airport that we’re staying at one of the oldest hotels in Doha, having opened in 1981. The skyline here is impressive. It’s a profoundly wealthy city. Reminds me a lot of Midland-Odessa, Texas, which, in the 1970s had its own oil boom and wealth. There’s a sense here of busy-ness; lots of ex-pats going about the business of working and dealing; vast and obvious wealth.
Today is a day off. I managed to sleep last night and even got to workout this morning in a very well-equipped fitness facility. Mike Doyle and I will probably catch a few sites and then sit down to talk about Monday and Tuesday depositions. Mike’s got it well in hand–my role is mostly to help steer the boat and listen to the witnesses.
Meanwhile, we have a lot of work on this case besides these next two days of depositions. More on that in the coming weeks.
If the travel gods remain kind, I’ll be back on the ground in Oregon Wednesday afternoon. I imagine I’ll be a tad worse for wear….
That’s the question posed in the title of this Mother Jones write up by reporter Kate Sheppard. It’s a sharp article that focuses mostly on Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s (D. Or.) great work asking the hard questions about the relationship between KBR and the U.S. government.
The short answer to her question is not really. At least not a get-out-of-court-free card. The KBR defendants are in the case regardless of what happens as between the government and KBR. Still, they will try to evade financial responsibility by sticking the government with the bill. Those of us who actually pay taxes are right to think about that as a bail out of a wealthy defense contractor that has or had friends in high places.
The real question I think Ms. Sheppard meant to ask is this: Can KBR stick the government with the bill for claims made by vets who were exposed to sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali facility in Iraq? Yes, that’s a lousy headline, which is one more reason why I will keep my day job.
But still, it’s important to clarify that we push forward on the case against KBR regardless of what side-deals were made between KBR and the government. On some level the bailout deal between the government and KBR is a distraction.
The contours of that still-secret deal are important, of course, because we as citizens and taxpayers have a right to know when our government has foolishly agreed to indemnify a private contractor that received billions from the public treasury. That’s especially true where–as here–the original Project RIO (Restore Iraqi Oil) contract under which KBR worked was a multibillion dollar, cost-plus, no-bid contract that was offered, negotiated and signed in secrecy.
All that aside, my job is simply to move the soldiers case forward. In that respect, I am very much like the infantry soldiers that I represent. The soldiers’ legal team will do everything in its power to see that we have our day in court. And yes, as trial lawyers, I can admit that we are looking forward to this trial. I welcome the opportunity for the story to be told here in Portland. Like a dog fixated on a ball or a bone, I am staring into the future when a jury will hear the evidence and decide the case.
And to that end, I leave tomorrow for Doha, Qatar where I will meet up with Mike Doyle, where we will take depositions of KBR witnesses. Mike will lead on the depositions. He’s got mad skills matched with an encyclopedic knowledge of the facts and relationships. It’s a hoot working with Mike. I imagine we’ll learn some things that matter.
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.
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.