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Family of killed Benghazi contractor still struggling to recover death benefits

The family of ex-Navy SEAL Glen Doherty is still trying to collect survivor benefits from his death in Benghazi, Libya. (AP Photo/Quigley Family Photo)

The family of Glen Doherty, one of two CIA contractors killed during the September 2012 Benghazi attacks, is still struggling to collect death benefits from the government to which they say they’re entitled.

The family’s three-year fight is playing out in the courts, in Congress and at the CIA — which has authority to change administrative rules regarding survivor benefits — and is shedding light on a federal law that critics say does not do enough to protect the families of contractors working abroad on dangerous assignments.

So far, the family’s efforts to recover benefits from the government have stalled, running up against administrative hurdles and congressional delays.

They’ve been pressing the CIA to change an administrative rule that would result in the government paying survivor benefits up to $400,000 to the Dohertys and other similar families. But that effort is on hold, pending approval from congressional committees.

If the impasse remains, Doherty’s family is prepared to file a $1 million wrongful death lawsuit against the CIA and the State Department. Michael Mortenson, the attorney representing the family, has filed claims with the CIA and State, a prerequisite to a lawsuit. If the agencies reject the claims or do not respond, a lawsuit can then be filed.

Individual citizens must meet a very high bar in order to bring a lawsuit against the federal government, and a federal judge would have to decide whether this case would meet the standard.

Last December, after months of talks with CIA officials, the family received word that the agency agreed to establish a new program that would pay survivor benefits up to $400,000 to the Doherty family and other similarly situated families. The change would apply dating back to 1983, the year of the Beirut bombing, and could result in retroactive payments to several dozen families, said Amy Carnevale, a lobbyist representing the Dohertys. Mortenson and Carnevale, of the law firm K&L Gates, are representing the Doherty family on a pro-bono basis. 

The CIA policy would closely mirror the new State Department one. Under it, survivors of federal employees and contractors who die from an act of terrorism since April 18, 1983, receive a life insurance supplement from the CIA that makes up the difference between employer-provided life insurance coverage, if any, and $400,000.

However, in order for the CIA rule change to be applied retroactively, it needs to be approved by four congressional committees: House and Senate Intelligence, and House and Senate defense appropriations subcommittees. The Senate Intelligence Committee has yet to sign off on it.

“Typically, that’s a quick process,” Carnevale said. “But as with anything related to Benghazi, it’s a long drawn-out process.”

The family this week reached out to the office of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to determine the reason for the holdup, Carnevale said.

A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for Burr’s office said the committee is working with the CIA to “identify the legal and regulatory authorities that support the Director’s decision, and believe recent updates provided by the agency set it on the path to deliver benefits to the families of those who have made the greatest sacrifice for our country.”

“Chairman Burr is working to ensure that the families of those who serve will get the support they deserve from the government their loved ones pledged to protect,” said Burr’s communications director Becca Glover Watkins. “Sen. Burr will continue to fight for these families and is pleased that the government is making a pathway possible.”

In a separate legal matter, the Doherty family reached a settlement over the summer with the insurer, Rutherfoord, that sold Doherty an insurance policy. The family sued the insurer in 2014, after it did not pay death benefits beyond the funeral expenses.

Although the matter is settled, the family is lobbying Congress to change the law that governs the way families in the Doherty’s situation can collect death benefits.

The law, the Defense Base Act, requires overseas contractors to take out a disability and death benefit policy before being deployed. The law specifies that if the policyholder dies, insurance carriers must pay death benefits to a surviving spouse or child. But it does not require insurers to pay benefits to other family members.

Doherty, who was divorced and had no children, listed his friend, Sean Lake, as the executor of his estate. He and Lake agreed that in the event of his death, Lake would distribute the benefit to his family. But the policy only covered dependents if they were a spouse or child of the policyholder. A Rutherfoord spokeswoman declined to comment.

Though the Dohertys and Rutherfoord have settled the matter, the family is lobbying Congress to change the law so that contractors without spouses or children don’t leave behind family members without the legal right to collect insurance benefits.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) introduced a bill in January called the Glen Anthony Doherty Overseas Personnel Fairness Act to amend the Defense Base Act by requiring insurers to pay benefits to designated beneficiaries or next of kin if the policyholder is unmarried. The bill was referred to the House Education and the Workforce Committee but has yet to move.