Attorney: KBR created hostile work environment

AP News
Posted: Jun 14, 2011 8:11 PM
Attorney: KBR created hostile work environment

A hostile work environment has been a longtime problem for military contractor KBR Inc., which failed to protect workers who were sexually assaulted or harassed, an attorney for a woman who claims she was raped by co-workers in Iraq told jurors Tuesday.

Jamie Leigh Jones, 26, is one of several female contract workers for KBR and former parent Halliburton Co. who claim they were sexually assaulted or harassed while working for the companies in Iraq. Jones says she was raped in 2005 while working for KBR at Camp Hope, Baghdad. She has sued KBR, Halliburton and a former KBR firefighter she says was one of her rapists.

Attorneys for KBR and Halliburton deny their companies have a long history of hostile working environments and not protecting workers who were sexually assaulted or harassed. The attorney for the ex-KBR firefighter says his client did not rape Jones and the two had consensual sex.

Jones' attorney, L. Todd Kelly, said Tuesday in his opening statement that as far back as 1998, KBR created an environment in which employees who were sexually assaulted or harassed were scared into not reporting what happened or were fired while their harassers were promoted and protected.

"KBR did a lot to keep this secret," Kelly said. "KBR doesn't take care of its people."

Kelly told jurors that Jones asked to be transferred to Iraq after being sexually harassed by a supervisor in Houston. Once overseas, she endured "catcalls" from men in the predominantly male barracks where she lived, he said.

Jones' lawsuit says that on July 28, 2005, she was drugged with what she believes was the sedative Rohypnol, widely known as a "date-rape drug," then raped in her room by former KBR firefighter Charles Bortz and several others. She said the rape left her severely bruised, ruptured her breast implants and tore her pectoral muscles.

The Associated Press usually doesn't identify people alleging sexual assault, but Jones' face and name have been broadcast in media reports and on her own website.

Kelly told jurors that Jones reported the rape to KBR officials, who placed her under armed guard, held her in a shipping container for hours and wouldn't allow her to make a phone call. Jones was able to call her father in the U.S. after persuading a guard to let her use his phone, Kelly said.

Jones' father contacted Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston, who helped get her released, Kelly said. Jones is originally from Conroe, about 40 miles north of Houston.

Andrew McKinney, one of Bortz's attorneys, acknowledged to jurors that his client "is no angel" but said the sex between Bortz and Jones was consensual. Bortz has filed a countersuit against Jones that the jury also will decide.

McKinney suggested to jurors they shouldn't believe Jones' claims because she has changed her story several times of how she was raped and a psychiatrist has diagnosed her as being a person who "refuses to accept responsibility for (her) own mistakes, who exaggerates or fabricates symptoms."

Joanne Vorpahl, an attorney for KBR and Halliburton, said KBR encourages its employees to report any problems they have and that it has consistently enforced its policies against sexual harassment. The Houston-based companies split in 2007.

When KBR learned of Jones' allegations, it immediately and appropriately responded, Vorpahl said. KBR denies it held Jones against her will and says it put her in a separate trailer for her own safety, Vorpahl said.

KBR began investigating the allegations, she said, but that probe was taken over by the U.S. State Department.

"We are not who (Jones) says we are, and she is not who she claims to be," Vorpahl said.

KBR and Halliburton had contended Jones' case should be settled through arbitration as stipulated in her contract. But an appeals court let her lawsuit, first filed in 2007, go to trial.

Due in part to Jones' case, federal lawmakers in 2009 approved a measure prohibiting contractors and subcontractors that receive $1 million in funds from the Department of Defense from requiring employees to resolve sexual assault allegations and other claims through arbitration.

The first witness for Jones, Amy Katz, a former training coordinator for KBR, told jurors she was fired in 1999 after she told the company about sexual harassment problems it had in its operations in the Balkans.

Testimony in the trial, which could last up to three weeks, is set to resume on Wednesday. Jones is expected to testify at some point during the trial.