By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Earlier this year, Walton held former USA Today reporter Toni Locy in contempt of court for refusing to reveal her sources. Locy, who previously worked at The Post, appealed the ruling. Yesterday afternoon, Hatfill's attorneys notified the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in writing that the scientist no longer needs Locy's testimony, which "may or may not make the appeal moot."
Locy, soon to be a journalism professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., did not return e-mail messages. Her attorney declined to comment.
Last year, a federal judge in Alexandria threw out a related lawsuit by Hatfill against the New York Times over columns by Nicholas D. Kristof. Hatfill has appealed. Abbe Serphos, a spokeswoman for the Times, declined to comment yesterday.
The October 2001 anthrax mailings, sent to then-Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), network television offices in New York and the company that owns National Enquirer, gripped the nation and disrupted correspondence. In addition to the two D.C. postal workers, a Florida photographer, a New York hospital worker and an elderly Connecticut woman died after being exposed to the powder.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the investigation of the anthrax attacks continues.
"This investigation remains among the department's highest law enforcement priorities," he said. At one point, as many as 35 FBI agents and 15 Postal Inspection Service agents were involved in the probe, which led to interviews of witnesses as far away as Kabul, Afghanistan. No arrests have been made.
Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) sharply criticized the FBI yesterday for what he called failures in evidence collection and for developing a faulty theory in the case. Holt said he would invite FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to appear before the intelligence oversight panel of the House Appropriations Committee to explain the status of the investigation.
"This case was botched from the very beginning," the lawmaker said.