MAC/20: Mines and Communities

COLOMBIA

Published by MAC on 2007-03-17

COLOMBIA

Drummond lobbied State Department

By Jay Reeves . Associated Press

17th March 2007

BIRMINGHAM | An Alabama coal company, sued over the killing of three union leaders in Colombia, quietly lobbied the State Department to intervene in an apparent bid to have the suit thrown out, according to court records and an attorney in the case.

The effort by Drummond Co. Inc. included assistance from the law firm of former Secretary of State James Baker, but the department refused to get involved.

The civil case over the 2001 slayings is set for trial in federal court May 14.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals spelled out the failed lobbying attempt by Drummond in a decision Wednesday that unsealed key records that had been kept from public view.

Stillman College journalism professor Stephen F. Jackson asked a federal judge in February to allow public access to thousands of pages of documents from the case that had been sealed on grounds that they were not relevant to the case and would prejudice the jury if made public.

In its opinion, the appeals court said Drummond contacted the State Department without the knowledge of the judge presiding over the case, U.S. District Judge Karon O. Bowdre, or attorneys for those bringing the suit.

In a sworn statement, Drummond attorney Ignacio Sanchez detailed his contacts with four State Department executives over a four-month period. Sanchez said he was working in consultation with Baker Botts LLP, the law firm of the former secretary of state.

Drummond executive Mike Tracy declined comment on any attempt by the family owned company to sway the State Department. The company has denied any role in the killings.

United Steelworkers attorney Dan Kovalik said Thursday the company wanted the government to intervene and end the suit by saying "this case would hurt U.S. foreign policy, which the department has done in other cases."

Documents filed in the case by Drummond also indicate the government could have intervened and asked the court to dismiss the case if it believed the lawsuit could damage U.S. foreign relations.

Once she learned of the lobbying, Bowdre "expressed concern" and ordered it to stop, the 11th Circuit said.

Kovalik said Drummond asked Bowdre three times to seek an opinion from State before she finally agreed, resulting in a letter last year from Jeffrey S. Buchholtz, a deputy assistant attorney general. The letter said the State Department was aware of the case and did not have an opinion about whether it "will have an adverse impact on the foreign policy interests of the United States."

The Colombian union Sintramienergetica, working on the case with the United Steelworkers of America, filed suit in Birmingham in 2002 claiming Drummond paid paramilitary gunmen to murder three leaders of a union that represented Drummond employees at its huge mine in northern Colombia. Two of the men were taken off a company bus and shot.

Drummond has denied any link to the slayings. The union's wrongful death claims are against Drummond Ltd., the Colombian arm of Drummond, and its president, Augusto Jimenez.

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