Chambliss immune from Imperial Sugar questions

SAVANNAH, Ga. - A judge has ruled Sen. Saxby Chambliss doesn't have to answer questions from a lawyer suing Imperial Sugar on behalf of victims of the explosion at the company's Georgia refinery last year.

Savannah attorney Mark Tate, who represents families of six employees killed in the blast and five injured workers, subpoenaed Chambliss in hopes of asking him if the company sought his help to discredit a whistleblower and discourage workers from suing.

State Court Judge Hermann Coolidge quashed the subpoena Monday, but his one-paragraph ruling did not explain why. Senate lawyers had argued the Constitution gives Chambliss immunity from answering questions about his official duties.

"It's sort of disappointing, but not surprising," Tate said Tuesday. "Now other courts are going to pick up this Chatham County State Court order and say, 'Hey, if you get elected (to Congress), you're immune.'"

Chambliss is not a defendant in any of the 39 lawsuits filed against Imperial Sugar since the Feb. 7, 2008, explosion at the company's refinery in Port Wentworth. Investigators blamed the blast on sugar dust that ignited like gunpowder, killing 14 people and injuring dozens more.

Tate said he may appeal the judge's ruling.

Chambiss spokeswoman Bronwyn Lance Chester said the south Georgia Republican had no information about the explosion that couldn't be obtained from Imperial Sugar.

"With respect to these tragic events, his only actions have been to listen to and mourn with the families, and to see that the federal government takes every step to ensure that an incident such as this never happens again," Lance Chester said.

Tate said Chambliss overstepped his role as a government official by coming to the company's defense during a Senate hearing on the explosion and at a meeting Chambliss had with Imperial Sugar workers last summer. Tate argued at a March 10 court hearing Chambliss should have to answer questions about what he said at each appearance, and why he said it.

Senate attorneys argued Chambliss was immune from answering Tate's questions because of the Constitution's "speech or debate" clause, which shields members of Congress from testifying about legislative business in private lawsuits.

At a Senate hearing on the explosion in July, Chambliss sharply criticized a company whistleblower, Vice President of Operations Graham H. Graham, who testified Imperial Sugar ignored repeated warnings about explosive dust at the Georgia plant.

Tate says Chambliss was trying to undermine Graham's credibility as a witness in the lawsuits against Imperial Sugar, based in Sugar Land, Texas. Chambliss denies his criticism of Graham was intended to defend the company.

Tate also sought to question Chambliss about his meeting last summer with workers injured in the explosion and families of those who were killed. Tate says his clients who attended the meeting believe Chambliss tried to discourage them from suing, a claim the senator denies.

"To suggest that he has tried to influence the litigation in any way is unfortunate," Lance Chester said.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration proposed $8.7 million in fines against Imperial Sugar in July for safety violations at the Georgia refinery and another plant in Gramercy, La. Imperial Sugar is contesting the fines, the third-largest in OSHA's 40-year history.

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