U.S. Settles With Scientist Named in Anthrax Cases
Saturday, June 28, 2008
The Justice Department agreed yesterday to pay biological-weapons expert Steven J. Hatfill a settlement valued at $5.85 million to drop a lawsuit he filed after then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft named him a "person of interest" in the investigation of the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks.
The agreement, in which the government did not admit wrongdoing, ended a five-year legal saga. It came after months of mediation in a case that pitted investigators and major news organizations against the scientist, who said his privacy rights had been violated in the race to solve the notorious crimes.
Hatfill, who once worked at the Army's elite biological-warfare research center at Fort Detrick, Md., has always maintained that he played no role in the mailing of lethal powder to lawmakers and media figures weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. He said information that law enforcement agents supplied to the media cost him a job and any chance of employment.
"I don't think anyone would believe the Department of Justice would . . . pay that kind of money unless they felt there was significant exposure at trial," said Brian A. Sun, a defense lawyer who represented nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee in a leak case.
The anthrax mailings killed five people, including two postal workers at the Brentwood Road facility in the District, and sickened 17 others, spreading fear on Capitol Hill and across the country.
At a 2002 news conference, Ashcroft named Hatfill a person of interest in the wide federal investigation. Hatfill's home was searched, he was followed and his conversations were wiretapped. He lost his job as an instructor at Louisiana State University and, he said, his reputation was tarnished.
He eventually sued Ashcroft, the Justice Department and the FBI, maintaining that they had violated his constitutional rights and prevented him from earning a living. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ordered five reporters at news organizations, including The Washington Post, Newsweek, USA Today and CBS News, to answer questions about who provided them information about the investigation and its focus.
Hatfill's attorneys blasted government officials and the media anew as unfairly tarring their client in a statement that was released moments after the settlement was filed with a federal court in the District yesterday.
"As a result of the media circus they created and sustained, Dr. Hatfill must now carry on his scientific work largely independently," according to the statement from Mark A. Grannis, who is representing Hatfill. "This settlement will help him to do so."
Under the terms of the deal, the Justice Department agreed to give Hatfill, 54, a lump sum of $2.825 million and to purchase an annuity that will provide the scientist an annual income of $150,000 for the next two decades. A department spokesman said the total cost to taxpayers will be about $4.6 million, because the annuity will cost the government $1.78 million but will mature over time to $3 million.
The case also focused on interactions between media organizations and law enforcement agents, both in hot pursuit of leads in the case.
Former Washington Post staff writer Allan Lengel was one of six reporters from major news organizations who were deposed in connection with the lawsuit. Lengel confirmed the identities of two sources after they had identified themselves to Hatfill's attorneys and released him from his promise of confidentiality.