Democrats have lit into U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss for badgering an executive who exposed deadly hazards at a Port Wentworth refinery.
At issue is how Chambliss conducted himself at a U.S. Senate hearing in July that focused on a Feb. 7 Imperial Sugar Co. explosion and fire that killed 14 people.
The Republican lawmaker is in a close re-election race against Democratic challenger Jim Martin.
A Democratic Senate Campaign Committee video says Chambliss sided with his corporate campaign donors rather than refinery workers.
At the hearing, Graham Graham, Imperial Sugar's vice president for operations, said the company stymied his efforts to make the plant safer.
Chambliss repeatedly interrupted Graham and twice questioned his sincerity.
"Rather than use the hearing as a fact-finding opportunity, Sen. Chambliss chose to berate the ... executive for questioning Imperial Sugar," the video voice-over says.
In response, the Chambliss campaign lashed out at Martin.
"To use this tragedy and the loss of innocent lives for political gain is deplorable, shows a lack of character or moral values, and is just further evidence of Jim Martin's desperate campaign," said Chambliss spokeswoman Michelle Grasso. "Jim Martin should be ashamed of himself."
The video is a so-called "independent expenditure" - meaning it's not supposed to be coordinated with Martin's campaign.
Typically, however, such expenditures come as no surprise to the candidates they are intended to benefit.
In any case, the Martin campaign, which has had nothing to say so far concerning Imperial, returned Grasso's salvo.
"Chambliss's priorities ... have been clear - standing up for special interests like Imperial Sugar at the expense of Georgia families," said Martin spokeswoman Kate Hansen. "We need a new senator."
Committee spokesman Matt Miller said the video is online and didn't rule out using parts of it in a TV ad.
Outside the Savannah area, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, the issue likely will have little impact.
"It doesn't resonate that much in Atlanta unless it's part of a wider theme that Chambliss is a tool of business and doesn't care about little people," Bullock said. "For it to work, they would have to broadcast it."
The video notes that Chambliss has received $75,000 in campaign contributions from the sugar industry.
A supporting memo also lists $6,000 in donations to him from Imperial's political committee and employees of its lobbying firm - or its political committee. The money employees and the lobbying firm's committee donated since the fire totals $5,000.
It also cites more than $8,000 worth of industry-funded trips taken by Chambliss and his staff.
Grasso did not rebut the specifics of the video or the memo.
Senate Democratic committee spokeswoman Hannah August said the video was released in light of news about a subpoena served on Chambliss in connection with fire-related lawsuits.
The lawsuits, which Savannah attorney Mark Tate filed on behalf of fire victims and relatives, claim Imperial failed to remove hazards that caused the disaster.
The federal government is seeking to fine Imperial $8.8 million for safety violations at Port Wentworth and at its plant in Gramercy, La. The company is appealing.
Tate, who subpoenaed Chambliss, said the senator might have tried to talk some of his clients out of suing Imperial. He also speculates that Imperial recruited Chambliss to help discredit Graham and bias potential lawsuit jurors against him.
Grasso said Chambliss "has met with the families and continues to be extremely concerned about the families and victims of this tragedy.
"This was a great loss for the entire Coastal Empire, and Sen. Chambliss will continue to fight in Washington to make sure such a tragedy never happens again."