Originally created 03/02/00

Taxpayers foot bill for suit against SRS



The U.S. Department of Energy has spent about $2.5 million in taxpayers' money to pay legal fees for four Savannah River Site contractors fighting a racial discrimination lawsuit.

The Energy Department's contracts with the firms stipulate that the agency reimburse the companies for "reasonable costs associated with any litigation," said Rick Ford, a department spokesman at the federal nuclear-weapons site.

Such clauses are standard in most government contracts, Mr. Ford said. The Energy Department can refuse to reimburse the contractors if it finds that the fees are too expensive, he said.

The department also can deny repayment if it finds that the contractors violated its nondiscrimination policies or its policies to protect worker health, Mr. Ford said. Under those conditions, the Energy Department could reclaim any fees paid if the contractors lose the lawsuit, he said.

"So far, we have no evidence that they have done any of these things that would keep us from reimbursing them," Mr. Ford said. "However, we continue to review this case, and as it evolves, if the case discloses that they have indeed committed willful misconduct or lacked good faith or failed to exercise prudent business judgment, we would declare these costs to be unallowable."

A spokesman for the site's top contractor said the costs were necessary because of the legwork required during the suit's discovery period, when both sides gather and reveal evidence they might use during trial.

"We have spent several million dollars in legal fees already, and a lot of that is because the plaintiffs have requested literally millions of documents and deposed more than 200 witnesses from Westinghouse Savannah River Co.," said Will Callicott, a Westinghouse spokesman.

More money will be spent before the case is completed. Already, Energy Department attorneys are reviewing "substantial additional bills," Mr. Ford said.

About 90 black employees are suing Westinghouse and subcontractors Babcock and Wilcox Savannah River Co., Bechtel Savannah River Inc. and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Savannah River Corp.

The suit, filed in 1997, states that black employees were discriminated against in awarding pay raises and promotions. It also states that blacks were assigned more often to jobs that could expose them to radiation hazards.

The suit seeks class-action status that would allow the plaintiffs to represent the interests of all black employees of the companies.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.