In a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called on the DoD to investigate the excessive expenses racked up by the legal team of Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) -- a defense contractor that operated in Iraq with the contractual ability to pass all of their legal costs to American taxpayers. A lawsuit against KBR brought by a group of Oregon National Guard members assigned to provide security for KBR personnel claims that KBR management knew that the soldiers were being exposed to toxic chemicals while working at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant.
A newly declassified indemnification provision in the KBR contract with the U.S. military releases the contractors from all financial liability for misconduct and allows KBR to pass the on all of their legal costs to the U.S. government. Recent investigations into the conduct of KBR's legal team have uncovered excessive legal costs including senior attorneys billing at $750 per hour, taking numerous international and domestic first class flights and paying one expert more than $500,000 for testimony and consultation who has admitted to billing KBR for time spent sleeping.
"Essentially, KBR was handed a blank check with the Pentagon's signature, and it seems clear to me that they intend to run up the bill as much as possible before cashing that check," Wyden wrote in the letter. "What has DoD done to ensure that KBR is not taking advantage of taxpayers? Has DoD done a detailed audit of KBR's legal expenses so far? Has anyone at DoD checked to see if the legal expenses are excessive? Has any kind of cost-benefit been done to determine if it would be cheaper to direct KBR to settle the lawsuit?"
Kellogg, Brown and Root were contracted in 2003 to perform clean-up work at the Qarmat Ali water treatment facility in Iraq. Members of the Oregon National Guard were assigned to provide security for the KBR contractors and were exposed to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals including sodium dichromate, a carcinogen that contains hexavalent chromium -- one of the most dangerous chemicals on Earth. A group of exposed soldiers have brought a lawsuit against KBR based on evidence indicating that KBR managers "were aware of the presence of dangerous chemicals, but failed to warn the soldiers working in and around the plant," Wyden wrote in the letter.
Under KBR's contract, the government has the ability to direct KBR's legal defense and require the company to settle with Oregon Guard Members.