SAVANNAH, Ga. -- An Imperial Sugar Co. official says company President John Sheptor told her to downplay her role in safety issues after Imperial's local plant blew up last year.
Deborah Haban testified during a federal investigation after the Feb. 7, 2008, accident that killed 14 people and hurt many others at Imperial's Port Wentworth refinery.
Sworn statements confirm that Haban was assigned against her wishes to run safety programs even though she had no background in safety issues.
Sheptor and Haban each failed to return two calls made to seek comment.
Company spokesman Steve Behm rejected Haban's claims.
"Ms. Haban's recollection ... is inaccurate," he said.
Attorneys for victims of the catastrophe and their families who are suing the company accused Sheptor of attempting a cover-up.
"I think he's trying to do everything in his power to hide the extent of their neglect," said Mark Tate, one of the lawyers.
Haban, Imperial's director of human resources, was interviewed in June 2008 by lawyers for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
OSHA is seeking to fine Imperial $8.8 million for alleged safety violations at Port Wentworth and at its plant in Gramercy, La. The company is appealing.
Haban testified that, after the disaster, she and Sheptor were in a car waiting to go to a funeral for one of the victims.
She said she told Sheptor, who also is Imperial's CEO, that she likely would be interviewed by OSHA.
"I expressed to John my concern that ... I did not think it would be favorable to the company that ... an individual like myself without the expertise and experience was ... 'in charge of safety,'" Haban said.
Sheptor, Haban testified, directed her to minimize her role.
'Administer the paperwork'
"John," she said, "stated to me that I was simply to express that my role was ... an administrative role. I was nothing more than an administrator to, you know, administer the paperwork."
Behm did not dispute that statement.
Instead, he cited another portion of her testimony that described her boss's initial explanation of what her safety-related duties would be.
Haban said she was hired in 2003 to deal with matters such as training and development, and helping implement new information technology.
She testified that Kay Hastings, senior vice president of human resources, soon told her she also would be in charge of safety.
"I ... objected," Haban testified. " ... I have neither the education nor experience to manage a safety function in any organization and especially one in a manufacturing facility."
She said Hastings told her "she (Hastings) had too full of a plate to focus on (it) herself ... and that I did not need to be an expert in safety."
All she had to do, Haban said Hastings told her, was to give the corporate safety director guidance "and, you know, hold him accountable to the paperwork process of creating action plans and following through."
Asked whether that meant Sheptor advised her to acknowledge that her role was purely administrative, Behm replied that it didn't.
"No, that is not what we said," Behm responded. "... We are just pointing out that is what she said her role was."
Sworn statements show that she supervised the corporate safety director and was involved in safety-related spending and in high-level discussions of safety issues.
After the disaster, she testified, she was dispatched from the company's Sugar Land, Texas, headquarters to Savannah to help families of people who were killed or hurt.
When she arrived, Haban said, Sheptor told her not to discuss her role in safety matters.
"He instructed me," she said, "to be mindful that there were investigators on the premises and ... mindful of any conversations I had with anyone in safety or speaking of my role in safety or that safety reported to me ... ."
She said Sheptor told her William Schwer, Imperial senior vice president and general counsel, "had already begun to be involved."
So "there was just no need to be engaged in that area of my job while I was at the facility," Haban said the CEO told her.
Beyond that, Haban said Sheptor didn't say that day or on the day of the funeral why she should downplay her role in safety matters.
Victims' attorney Brent Savage said he knows why.
"He knew how bad it looked," Savage said.
But Behm offered a different version of what Sheptor said and a different explanation of his concerns.
Behm said the CEO told her to talk to "agency representatives" at the plant only with a company lawyer present "as would be appropriate for any company official."
Moreover, Behm said the context of the conversation was that she was in Savannah to work with victims' families in her human resources capacity.
Safety oversight reassigned
In Hastings' sworn statement, she confirmed Haban's account of her assignment of responsibility for safety issues.
Like Haban, Hastings said Haban was tapped for the job after the company decided to transfer safety oversight from operations to human resources.
Hastings said the corporate safety director reported to Haban, and Haban regularly was invited to participate in safety meetings and conference calls.
One of them, she said, was a strategy session after an explosion and fire at the Domino Sugar plant in Baltimore in November 2007.
She said Haban also sometimes dealt with plant managers on safety issues.
Dwayne Zeigler, Imperial's senior manager for planning, testified that Haban was responsible for shepherding proposed spending for safety projects.
Hastings said Haban regularly sought a "status update" from the corporate safety manager on various issues.
Despite her duties, Hastings said, Haban received no training on safety issues, except for attending conferences on "behavior-based" safety.
Haban said she and Sheptor talked in September 2007 about the future of safety manager Doug Sykes and that the CEO asked about "Doug's ability."
She said she told Sheptor that, while she had sought to get Sykes education, training, and professional certification, he lacked a bachelor's degree.
She added that she couldn't guide Sykes "from a technical perspective" or in "overall management of safety" because "I didn't have the education and experience... ."
Behm said Sheptor asked Haban if she "had any concerns" about to whom the safety director reported.
After hearing those concerns, Behm noted, Haban testified that Sheptor said he intended to transfer oversight of safety back to operations.
And despite whatever objections she raised to her safety duties in 2003, Behm said, she continued to perform them until last year. After the explosions and fires, responsibility for safety was shifted back to operations.
Behm also cited Haban's sworn acknowledgement that, after Sheptor joined Imperial as chief operating officer in early 2007, he stressed safety.
He also observed that she mentioned two other occasions on which Sheptor, who became president and CEO eight days before the disaster, pledged to promote safety.
But victims' attorney Tate said OSHA should ask the U.S. Attorney General's office to look into whether Sheptor's instructions to Haban represent obstruction of justice.
OSHA spokesman Mike Wald had no comment other than to restate that OSHA has not decided whether to seek criminal prosecution.
Tom Bordeaux, a lawyer for one of the victims, accused Imperial officials of trying to hide facts even as they were assuring victims and their families that "we feel your pain."
"What they evidently really felt," he said, "was that the full story of their incompetence had better never come out."