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Environmental Espionage: Inside a Chemical Company's Louisiana Spy Op

Facing lawsuits and activist outcry following a massive chemical spill, Condea Vista called in Beckett Brown International's for-hire spies to infiltrate its opposition.

| Tue May 20, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

Located in the historically Cajun bayou country of southwest Louisiana, upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Charles has been no stranger to chemical contamination. Like the notorious "Cancer Alley" in the eastern part of the state, the area is home to a high concentration of petrochemical manufacturers. But the spill from the Conoco-Condea pipeline was huge even by Louisiana standards. High levels of EDC were first discovered in the local estuary in 1993, and subsequently traced to the pipeline and to Conoco's dock facility. The 1.6 million pounds recovered from the soil in the resulting cleanup effort were only a fraction of the total EDC that had leaked—by various estimates, between 19 million and 47 million pounds. But the companies downplayed the extent of the spill, and workers were dispatched to clean it up without being warned of the health hazards posed by EDC or being provided with adequate protective gear. By the late 1990s, some of those workers were suffering health effects ranging from burns to severe respiratory problems.

In the mid-'90s Tom Filo, an attorney with the Lake Charles firm of Cox, Cox, Filo, Camel & Wilson, first brought suit against Condea Vista on behalf of sickened workers. In 1997, he won an $8 million verdict. The jury in the case found Condea liable for "wanton and reckless disregard of public safety." Not only did the spill sicken workers, Filo says, but it contaminated the Chicot Aquifer, which provides drinking water for southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas.

As he litigated the case against Condea, Filo says he suspected that his opponents might be using dirty tactics. "The offices were broken into a couple of times while the litigation against Vista was going on," Filo told me. "In one incident I got a call from the security system. And I went down to the office at 3 a.m. There were 6 cops—sheriff's deputies—sitting in the conference room. I said, 'What's going on?' Well, they were 'Just checking the office.' The next morning the office manager discovered the front door had been broken through. A friend checked out the city agencies and found a record of an alarm being set off, then one minute later cancelled." Filo says he later discovered that one of the police officers sitting in his conference room that night had a day job at Condea Vista. "Weird shit was going on back then," he says.

Years later, Filo's suspicions that he and his law firm were being spied on were confirmed. In 2006, the Louisiana lawyer received a call from John Dodd, alerting him that he might have been a "victim" of BBI. Filo, who is specifically referred to as a "target" in internal BBI documents, later flew up to Maryland to comb through Dodd's archive. Among the documents Filo found were handwritten copies of his phone records. He also says he discovered confidential documents related to his litigation against Condea Vista, including a medical report by a doctor who had examined a client, a copy of an autopsy request, and internal memos between attorneys planning strategy in the case. He dismissed the possibility that these documents were fished out of the trash. "Copies of correspondence between lawyers never get put in the trash." If private investigators were eavesdropping on his offices, or had gone so far as to steal documents from his firm, that would explain something that had long puzzled him. As he prepared his case against Condea Vista, he says, he was startled to find that his opposition "had info I was going to put in a brief before I wrote the brief."

When Filo returned from Maryland, he showed some of Dodd's BBI documents to Michael Tritico, a local environmental activist. Included in the records were photographs of Tritico's mother's house, which had apparently been staked out in an effort to monitor the activist's whereabouts. "I always assumed the other side was watching," Tritico told me.

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