Attorney wants senator on stand

SAVANNAH, Ga. --- A Savannah attorney wants to question Sen. Saxby Chambliss about whether Imperial Sugar Co. enlisted the Republican lawmaker to help the company avoid blame after the deadly explosion at its Georgia refinery.

Attorney Mark Tate, who is suing Imperial Sugar on behalf of two injured workers and the families of two employees killed in the blast, subpoenaed Mr. Chambliss to testify Thursday -- five days before the Nov. 4 election in which he faces Democrat Jim Martin.

"We think it's important we do it now because we're concerned about what might happen to e-mails and other things if we don't move on it," Mr. Tate said Friday.

Mr. Tate wants to ask Mr. Chambliss whether Imperial Sugar executives persuaded him to harshly criticize a company whistleblower during a Senate hearing on the Feb. 7 explosion. He also wants the senator to respond to plaintiffs' claims that Imperial Sugar arranged a meeting between Mr. Chambliss and victims' families to dissuade them from suing.

Mr. Chambliss issued a written statement saying he had referred the subpoena to Senate lawyers.

"I continue to sympathize with the families who were devastated by this tragedy, and I will continue to work to protect the interests of those families who experienced loss during this horrible incident," Mr. Chambliss said.

But he has drawn criticism from those who think he took Imperial Sugar's side in the explosion, which investigators determined was caused by sugar dust that ignited like gunpowder. The blast killed 14 workers and injured dozens more.

At the July Senate hearing, Mr. Chambliss strongly criticized a whistleblower who told investigators the company ignored repeated warnings about potential dust explosions.

Vice President of Operations Graham H. Graham, had worked at Imperial Sugar for three months before the blast. Yet Mr. Chambliss accused Mr. Graham of trying to protect himself by coming forward and said he should have done more to improve conditions before the explosion.

"This guy Graham knows he's on the hook," Mr. Chambliss said in an interview after the hearing.

Mr. Tate said he believes Mr. Chambliss was enlisted by Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor "to bias the Chatham County jury pool against Graham Graham."

"We believe that Saxby Chambliss was given information about what happened at the plant by John Sheptor directly," Mr. Tate said. He also said some of his clients have told him Mr. Chambliss spoke to them at a July meeting arranged by the company.

Mr. Chambliss works closely with the sugar industry as the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.