How Women Won the KBR Rape Case

In 2005, Jamie Leigh Jones went to work in Baghdad's Green Zone for KBR, then an engineering and construction subsidiary of the defense contractor Halliburton. Upon arrival, she was placed in co-ed barracks where the ratio of men to women was 20 to 1. Four days later, Jones said that she was slipped the date-rape drug Rohypnol and gang raped by fellow KBR employees. When she reported the crime, Halliburton locked her in a shipping container for 24 hours without food or water, and barred her from contacting anyone outside.

Last month, Jones' case against KBR employee Charles Boartz for rape and against KBR for knowingly sending her into a hostile work environment finally went to trial. On Friday, a jury found Boartz and KBR not guilty.

Jones's story won the sympathies of millions; she now has a contract for both a book and movie, and was prominently featured last month in HBO's Hot Coffee, a documentary about the corporate campaign to restrict access to the justice system. But at trial, Jones' story fell apart. As Stephanie Mencimer reported in Mother Jones last week, KBR found experts and evidence that cast doubt on large portions of Jones' story. Jones claimed, for example, that she had two sips of a drink and doesn't remember anything else, but KBR dug up a report in which she admitted to having five drinks. No evidence of Rohypnol was found in blood tests. Jones also alleged her breast implants were ruptured by the violent assault, but the doctor who treated her the next day said this wasn't true either. The allegation that there were multiple attackers was thrown out for lack of evidence, and prosecutors brought up that Jones had reported being raped twice in the past and had taken drugs used to treat anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.

It is difficult to know what really happened, and the alleged attacker's acquittal brings us no closer to the truth. But one thing is clear: While Jones lost her court case, the fact that she got a trial is a win for victims of sexual assault who, like her, had been denied their day in court.

Jones' trial was about rape, but her story is about companies eroding access to the justice system. In the last several years, Jones had become the poster child for the fight against what are called "mandatory arbitration clauses" in employment and consumer contracts. The clauses, which employees rarely think twice about before signing the contract, require employees to settle their grievances against the company in arbitration tribunals instead of going to court. As opposed to court proceedings, which are public, arbitration is a private, secret process in which a judge hired by the company adjudicates. There is no appeals process, and the results are generally kept under lock and key. Increasingly, anything from employment to cell phone contracts contain mandatory arbitration clauses that block access to the courts. It's estimated that 75 percent of non-union workers have binding arbitration clauses in their contracts, and that the majority of major companies -- from hospitals to credit cards -- have them as well.

When Jones tried to bring her alleged attackers to justice and hold KBR responsible for placing her in danger, she was told that she had, in fact, signed away that right. She would have to air all complaints in arbitration with the company that she says locked her up, discouraged her from reporting her crime, and tampered with her rape kit. Whether Jones was assaulted or not, letting the very company she accused resolve the case seems problematic, to say the least.

The Fifth Circuit Appeals Court thought so too, finding that the binding arbitration clause did not apply to Jones' sexual-assault charges; her contract covered work-related disputes but "stopped at her bedroom door." In other words, rape is not a work-related injury. KBR appealed to the Supreme Court in the fall of 2009.

At the same time, KBR launched an aggressive smear campaign against Jones, calling her a liar and disputing the facts of the case. On their website, KBR offered its own account of what had happened. A press release claimed Jones was taken to a secure trailer where she was cared for after the incident -- not locked in a shipping container as Jones alleged. In response to the campaign, Sen. Al Franken, who took up Jones' cause in Congress, told Slate, "You know where a great place to try arguments is? In court. But they've spent five years fighting against her attempts to have her day there. It seems odd that they wouldn't want to explain their side in the courtroom, since they're willing to in the media."

Before the Supreme Court was able to hear the KBR appeal, Franken succeeded in amending the 2009 Defense Appropriations bill to prohibit the Defense Department from hiring companies that use arbitration to resolve cases of sexual assault, battery, or racial discrimination. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

Jones' rape case was only of secondary importance to KBR. What the company was really afraid of was losing the ability to force arbitration. One rape case could be dismissed as an aberration, but dozens are a public-relations nightmare. In March of last year, KBR withdrew its appeal to the Supreme Court fearing the suit would violate the Franken amendment and endanger a $2.3 billion contract they signed with the government.

The Franken Amendment, KBR president William C. Bodie wrote in a letter in January 2010, "promotes frivolous lawsuits." It's the most common argument trotted out in favor of arbitration, and it's exactly how KBR painted the Jones case. Of course, no rape case should be called frivolous on its face, especially since Jones isn't alone in reporting assault overseas. In 2008, The Nation Investigative Fund ran a story entitled "Another KBR Rape Case" about Dawn Leamon, a paramedic who says she was drugged and gang raped on a base in Iraq. Jones' lawyer is currently working on the case of Anna Mayo, who says she was brutally raped while working for a Halliburton subsidiary in Iraq. In 2009, Jones testified that, through a foundation she set up to support women assaulted overseas, she had been contacted by a number of women who found themselves shut out of the courts after an assault.

During a Senate hearing on binding arbitration in 2009, an arbitration lawyer made the mistake of saying Jones, who was present to testify, had already had her day in court. "Four years to fight to get in court is not a day in court," Jones said.

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