Nov 20

Bell Affiliates Sues to Block Release of Documents

A Bell Helicopter subsidiary is suing the Defense Department to block the release of government documents to a former executive who was fired last year.

The executive, Michael Prieto, was terminated as president of Bell Aerospace Services in June 2008. Prieto later filed a lawsuit alleging that Bell wrongfully fired him after he discovered and tried to investigate ethical problems, including mischarging the government for expenses on military contracts.

As part of the effort to obtain evidence for that lawsuit, Prieto and his attorney filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking potentially relevant documents from the Defense Contract Management Agency.

Now Bell has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fort Worth asking that the defense agency be prohibited from releasing the documents because they contain “proprietary and competition sensitive” information that could be used by the company’s competitors.

Joe LaMarca, a spokesman for Bell Helicopter and its affiliate, said the lawsuit was filed because once information is released under FOIA it becomes public. Prieto can get the same documents and information through the legal discovery process, LaMarca said, but it would then be subject to a court-ordered confidentiality agreement.

“We’re complying with the letter and intent of the law,” LaMarca said.

In his lawsuit, Prieto alleges that he was fired after repeatedly bringing to the attention of Bell Helicopter management what he felt was evidence that Bell Aerospace and an affiliated company were engaged in improper billing on government contracts.

If Prieto had ignored the problems or gone along with orders from his superiors not to investigate them, he would have been liable for criminal prosecution, said Prieto’s lawyer, Hal Gillespie of Dallas. “This guy was properly motivated. He wanted do the right thing,” Gillespie said. “He was courageous to the point of getting fired. He refused to perform a criminal act.”

Gillespie said he believes that Bell is trying to hide information that could help his client.

“It sure tells me there’s something I asked for from Bell in my discovery that they haven’t given me,” Gillespie said. “It tells me there’s something the government has that Bell doesn’t want me to have.”

The company’s legal tactic, known as a reverse FOIA suit, is not frequently used because it’s an uphill battle, said Dallas lawyerDarren Nicholson, who is not involved in the case. Under FOIA guidelines, the plaintiff — Bell, in this case — has to prove that the government should not release the information.

The FOIA law prevents the release of confidential information prepared by someone else and submitted to the government but not information collected and prepared by the government. The agency has great leeway to redact documents to prevent the release of information that it deems proprietary or a trade secret.

But once the government agency decides to release the information, Nicholson said, trying to stop it means taking on both the agency and the Justice Department.

“They’re typically difficult lawsuits to win,” Nicholson said.

One of Bell’s competitors, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. and its sister company, Pratt & Whitney, recently filed similar lawsuits seeking to block release of documents to reporters. The companies complained that the documents would expose highly confidential business information.

Nicholson said he suspects that the use of reverse FOIA suits may be on the rise because companies fear that the Obama administration will be more inclined to release information than the Bush administration.

Copyright 2009 Star-Telegram Operating, Ltd.

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