The Department of Energy has spent nearly $50 million over the last three years paying private law firms to defend its contractors against eight lawsuits brought by workers and civilians who asserted they were harmed by radiation from the nuclear weapons industry, according to an internal memorandum.
Payments to private lawyers in the eight cases accounted for more than half of what the department spent in that time on contractors' legal fees, records show.
The memorandum, prepared by a team of lawyers in the Energy Department's Office of General Counsel, was obtained by the Military Production Network, an alliance of small environmental groups from 12 states where nuclear weapons plants are situated.
Robert Nordhaus, general counsel of the Energy Department, said some of the fees paid have raised questions. "It looks like a lot of money," said Mr. Nordhaus, who led the team that investigated the payments and prepared the memorandum.
"My reaction was that we should take a careful look at whether the money was well spent. We are looking to see whether these are reasonable charges."
Mr. Nordhaus said he was not aware of any other government agency spending so much money on fees to defend its contractors.
"It's unique in that regard," he said. "Ordinarily the government is a party to these cases and the Justice Department is involved. In these cases, contractors are a party and the Government is footing their bill."
One law firm in Chicago, Kirkland & Ellis, was paid $10.2 million from October 1991 through May 1993 defending Dow Chemical, Du Pont and National Lead in suits involving radiation from nuclear weapons plants in Colorado, Ohio and Washington state, according to the Energy Department. The firm did not respond to a request for an interview.
The memorandum is the first authoritative accounting made public of legal fees paid by contractors, among them Du Pont, Dow, Rockwell International and General Electric, and reimbursed by the Department of Energy.