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Taxpayers may cover $30M in legal fees

PORTLAND — Taxpayers are responsible for $30 million in legal fees a military contractor has spent defending itself against a lawsuit from Oregon soldiers who say the company exposed them to toxic chemicals in Iraq.

A Portland judge ruled the Pentagon's contract exempts Kellogg, Brown and Root from paying the fees, which include first-class airfare, billing up to $750 per hour, and $500,000 paid to an expert witness who fell asleep during a deposition, The Oregonian reported.

There were 800 soldiers who guarded a water treatment facility in southern Iraq's oil fields, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has acknowledged they were exposed to sodium chromate.

A lawsuit filed by Houston Lawyer Mike Doyle on behalf of 159 veterans says KBR exposed service members to sodium dichromate, which caused respiratory ailments. They fear a carcinogen in the toxin could cause cancer.

An $85 million jury award was thrown out in May over a jurisdiction issue. The case will likely head to federal court.

"As a taxpayer, it's unbelievable that you'd be given incentive for the worst kind of misconduct," Doyle said.

Oregon's Democratic congressional leaders had urged the Pentagon to step in, saying this summer that they were outraged the contractor would seek $850,000 in legal fees.

Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh wrote in an Aug. 4 letter that the Army is staying neutral on the issue.

"While the Army will continue to cooperate with all of the parties to these cases through its published litigation regulations, the Army does not currently intend to recommend that the Department of Justice take control of these cases and, thus, assume financial responsibility for any liability that KBR may have."