Dragons in the Whorehouse

Houston STP Lawyers Depose "No Nuke" Activists

by Audrey Duff

Clad in a worn tweed jacket with a wool muffler warming his thin neck and wearing glasses thick as coke bottles, T. Paul Robbins stuck out like a nun in a whorehouse among the dark-suited lawyers gathered in the corporate digs of Austin's Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody last month. Robbins, who has spent countless hours during the last seven years exposing allegations of safety problems at the South Texas Project (STP) nuclear plant, sat at a conference table and looked vulnerable as Mike Diehl, an attorney for STP managing partner Houston Lighting & Power (HL&P), began to fire questions as crisp as his starched shirt.

Robbins was compelled to answer the HL&P lawyer's questions as part of the utility's defense against a $125 million dollar mismanagement lawsuit brought against HL&P by the City of Austin, for lengthy shutdowns at the plant. (Austin is a 16% partner in STP.) Why depose "No Nuke" activists? HL&P attorneys say there's a conspiracy going on between the Austin City councilmembers and local anti-nuke activists to harass and disrupt the Houston utility. And that Austin's alleged collusion with the activists proves they were a bad-faith partner. But more likely, say others, HL&P wants to paint the City of Austin with the wide brush of activism to avoid answering the subject of mismanagement.

As in most depositions, Diehl's questions to Robbins were all over the map. Some were eye-rollingly redundant, such as the following:

Diehl: In your view, how many nuclear plants should there be?

Robbins: None.

Diehl: In your view, they should all be shut down?

Robbins: Yes, sir.

Diehl: [Do] you envision that nuclear plants should be closed?

Other questions hit more toward the point:

Diehl: Can you remember any city councilmember you met with who discussed the advice of attorneys?

Robbins: A few months ago, Brigid Shea told me in a private meeting that... they could not do an outside investigation [of STP] because somehow that would jeopardize the city's legal standing. I was aghast when she said that. I like her, but... on that particular issue, I'm rather disgusted with her.

Not exactly the chummy conspiracy theory HL&P would have liked to uncover, but Diehl continued to chip away over the next week at Robbins and three other environmental activists whose sin appears to be that they have annoyed both HL&P and the city with their protests and constant calls for a public investigation of the plant.

"[HL&P] is trying to make the city council out to be this wild-eyed bunch of radical eco-terrorists controlled by fringe groups, while at the same time maintaining that the nuke is a wonderfully operating facility," Robbins' attorney W. Scott McCollough scoffs. "It's a smokescreen by HL&P to shift the focus away from the main issue of whether they were negligent in operating the plant... [HL&P attorney Roy] Minton's good at sending lawyers down rabbit trails like this one."

"We weren't being sued, but I definitely felt harassed," says Robbins, author of The Environmental Directory, who was among four Austin-based activists subpoenaed by HL&P to give depositions last month. (The others were Bill Jackson, director of Austin's Greenpeace; Tom "Smitty" Smith, Austin director of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, and Les Breeding, formerly with the Texas Nuclear Responsibility Network. HL&P tried to serve local political theatre actress Susan Lee with a subpoena, but, despite numerous tries, was unable to catch up with her.)

The environmental activists, who often go unpaid, may have had good reason to feel harassed and outgunned with high-dollar attorneys like Minton snapping at their heels. Austin Chronicle writer Andrea Barnett reported last August that Minton was adamant at a hearing before District Judge Scott McCown that the five STP opponents be forced to give depositions and fork over mounds of personal notes and correspondence -- anything that had anything to do with STP. At that hearing, Barnett overhead Minton whisper loudly to two of his associates: "I don't care about their first amendment rights, I'm going to depose those individuals."

All five activists describe their worries over paying legal fees (they are thinking of holding a fundraiser), and missing work. In addition to time spent in depositions, all of the activists spent hours poring over their personal files for STP-related materials. But what concerned them most, they say, was the possibility that HL&P was using the depositions as a way to gather intelligence for other lawsuits regarding other environmental little guys. "We were worried that [HL&P was] using the depositions as a fishing expedition to find out how much we really knew about the plant, and to uncover our contacts with whistleblowers [who work at STP]," explains Public Citizen's Smith, who was deposed by HL&P December 1. "I lost more than a couple nights sleep."

Fortunately, says McCollough, who represented three of the activists in their depositions, HL&P lawyers lost the battle over the scope of discovery before Judge McCown, and were therefore limited in what they could ask. "I'm convinced [HL&P lawyers] were after more than just stuff for this lawsuit," McCollough says. "I doubt that Roy Minton would have showed up at the hearing if he wasn't hoping to win access to information to defend HL&P in the whistleblower cases he's handling."

Minton did not return phone calls from the Chronicle. Court papers filed by HL&P arguing the need for a broad scope of discovery, however, gave a different reason for the depositions' usefulness. According to an October 27 motion, the depositions were calculated to uncover a conspiracy HL&P lawyers say may have existed between the city council and local activists. Activists like Robbins "may have at times acted in concert with Austin in activities... potentially detrimental to STP, or which resulted in increased costs for STP, or which were inconsistent with the cities' duties to the co-owners of STP," contend HL&P attorneys.

The notion that the city was somehow dictating the behavior of the activists is laughable, they say. "We are supposed to have been the pawns of the city council," smirks Robbins. "That's pretty far-fetched when you realize that we've disagreed on what should be done with the nuke for years." (Austin has been advocating relinquishing all ties with the nuke by selling it, while the activists have pushed for an active partnership in which Austin demands and conducts an on-site inspection and investigation of alleged safety violations, followed by a forced shut-down.)

Still, HL&P attorneys have gotten at least one potentially damaging city document out of discovery. One interesting line of questioning pursued with all four deponents had to do with notes made by an unnamed city staffer in preparation for a council executive session. The handwritten document describes the need to discuss "strategy options" in dealing with STP: "Discuss... real vs. perceived ability of Austin to motivate HLP to buy us out in order to not deal with the nuscince [sic] of our ownership activities." The next page reads, "Meet with community activists to listen to their viewpoints and see if they have any ideas that the group can utilize as part of our strategy."

The smoking gun Diehl is looking for? Not according to Robbins, who says, "I don't know which is more stupid -- that someone would write that, or that someone would believe it."

"At best," McCollough says, "That document could indicate that the city may have encouraged folks to do what they would have done anyway."

During Breeding's deposition, he was shown a videotape of himself speaking on the dais at a council meeting in which he refers to the city's lawsuit against HL&P as a "nuisance" suit to make HL&P want to buy the city out. "The [HL&P] lawyer tried to connect the fact that I used the word "nuisance" in public once in the last two years with that [city] document," Breeding says. "The thing is, we were opposed to that strategy."

Other questions spun off into the realm of humor, like when Diehl asked about the anti-nuclear creature called the Energy Dragon, the three-person costume that activists don to make a splash at council meetings. Judge James Meyers, the judge who presided over the depositions, "asked if the council really allowed a dragon to sign up to speak at public meetings," recalls Greenpeace's Jackson. "He couldn't believe it."

Perhaps most troublesome to the environmentalists -- who, by carrying signs and screaming anti-corporate slogans, have been a thorn in the sides of many a multi-million dollar conglomerate -- is the ominous consequence of their activism. Finding themselves a target of well-heeled lawyers was not something they relished. Mostly, they say, it sends a message to other safe-energy advocates with little income to watch what they say. "It's a way to shut people up," says Robbins.

Local environmental attorney Bill Bunch does not give the strategy even that much credibility. "These depositions were of zero value," he maintains. "The only issue relevant to this suit, and that will be the focus of the trial in March, is: Did HL&P operate the plant the way it was supposed to be?" Dragon suits or no, that is, after all, the point. n

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