HOUSTON (Reuters) - Major Pentagon contractor KBR Inc and former parent Halliburton Co are facing rising political heat from a lawsuit filed by a woman who says she was gang-raped by fellow employees of a KBR unit in Iraq.
The complaint by Jamie Leigh Jones accuses the companies of tolerating abusive behavior and sexual harassment, creating a dangerous place to work for women in Iraq.
KBR, the Pentagon’s largest private contractor in Iraq, has already drawn scrutiny from auditors, lawmakers and the U.S. Justice Department for its billing claims related to services provided to troops in that country.
Jones, who went public to draw attention to her case, is suing KBR and Halliburton for compensatory and punitive damages in federal court in Houston.
Her allegations have won big play on TV, provided fodder for anti-war bloggers and caught the attention of politicians.
Jones testified about the incident on Wednesday before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee at a hearing on the enforcement of laws to protect Americans working in Iraq.
The investigation of the attack, initially undertaken by KBR security personnel, was turned over to the government at the government’s request, KBR said.
Now lawmakers are demanding answers and accountability.
“The individuals who assaulted Jamie must be rounded up and tried,” Ted Poe, a Republican congressman from Texas said in his statement at the hearing. “Nonfeasance by civilian contracting companies cannot be tolerated.”
Companies that hire civilian contractors in Iraq have an obligation to provide a safe place to work, he said.
Other politicians who have called for action include New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is a seeking to become the first woman U.S. president, and Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Halliburton, which spun off KBR into a separate company earlier this year, says it has been improperly named in the action and expects to be dismissed from the lawsuit.
In an e-mail statement, a KBR spokeswoman said it was improper to comment on pending litigation, but the safety and security of employees was the company’s top priority.
“Clearly from a public relations standpoint, this is doing absolutely no good for the companies,” said Sheryl Willert, past president of defense lawyer group DRI and a labor and employment attorney with Williams Kastner in Seattle.
“It certainly does not do much for their reputations.”
According to Jones, she was drugged and raped by KBR employees working as firefighters in Baghdad after only four days in Iraq.
The attack was so vicious, she said in legal documents, that it displaced her breast implants and required the repair of her torn pectoral muscles.
Jones alleges that after the attack, KBR held her under armed guard for 24 hours, and the results of a medical examination documenting the attack that were given to company security workers have now disappeared.
No criminal charges have been filed.
KBR and Halliburton have argued in court papers that the matter be settled in arbitration rather than by a jury.
But lawyers said both methods carry risks.
“If the allegations are in fact true, I think even the coldest arbitrator might award substantial damages to a victim of that sort of conduct,” Seth Chandler, a professor of law at the University of Houston.
Trials can also pose a risk because juries are unpredictable, and Texas juries have in the past given huge punitive awards, Willert said.
Reporting by Anna Driver in Houston