Three Democratic senators called today for a federal criminal investigation into a major shipbuilder that has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars building vessels for the U.S. Navy even as its workers have been killed and injured.
In a letter, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Patty Murray of Washington urged the Justice Department to launch an inquiry into VT Halter Marine Inc., citing a recent investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that uncovered how the Navy and Coast Guard rewarded private shipbuilders with $100 billion in contracts despite serious workplace safety violations.
“It is clear that without aggressive action, VT Halter will continue receiving contracts and putting workers in danger,” the senators said.
Two workers died and five were injured in an explosion in 2009 aboard a tugboat at one of VT Halter’s three Mississippi shipyards. The company won an $87 million Navy contract a month later. It then settled with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, agreeing to pay a fine of $860,500 and acknowledging it willfully violated 12 safety rules.
Former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis excoriated the company, calling the explosion a “horrific and preventable situation.” Since that accident, VT Halter has gone on to receive more than $345 million from the Navy despite a string of other serious and deadly accidents, including one in which a worker’s face was sheared away and another that blinded a crane operator.
In each of those cases, the company was slapped with more OSHA penalties. But Navy contracts continued to flow in, eclipsing those comparatively modest fines.
Navy and Coast Guard officials said they do not enforce workplace safety for employees in these shipyards. In addition, a federal workers’ compensation law generally prevents shipyard workers from suing their employers.
“In order to bring justice to the injured workers and the families of those who have died as a result of VT Halter’s recklessness, as well as to deter further wrongdoing that may cause more tragedies, we strongly urge the Department of Justice to launch an investigation of VT Halter and its leadership, and, if sufficient evidence of criminal conduct is uncovered, to prosecute such wrongdoing to the fullest extent of the law,” the senators wrote.
“VT Halter has been untouchable,” said Sandra Lanier, whose 25-year-old son, Alexander Caballero, was killed in the 2009 explosion. “They haven’t been punished because they keep getting contracts. A life is worth nothing to them. It has to stop.”
Reached by phone, a spokeswoman for VT Halter referred Reveal’s call requesting comment to the company’s lawyer, who did not immediately respond to a message.
In their letter, the senators invoked federal labor laws that allow for criminal penalties for willfully violating workplace safety laws that result in deaths, including fines and imprisonment.
Jennifer Gollan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.