Lawyer Hopes to Subpoena Chambliss

Posted November 19, 2008 at 6:51pm

In an effort to compel a deposition from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a Georgia attorney said he will argue that the lawmaker went outside the bounds of constitutional Speech or Debate protections when he met with accident victims earlier this year.

In an interview Wednesday, attorney Mark Tate said he will file documents as early as today urging the State Court of Chatham County to enforce a subpoena for Chambliss to be deposed in a civil case filed by victims of a February explosion at a Port Wentworth, Ga., sugar refinery.

The Office of Senate Legal Counsel, which is representing Chambliss, filed a motion Monday to nullify the subpoena, arguing that the Senator is protected under the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause.

“The Speech or Debate Clause not only immunizes Members from suit, but also provides them with a privilege against being compelled by subpoena to give testimony or produce documents in judicial proceeding,” the motion states.

But Tate said he believes the deposition would not violate the Speech or Debate Clause, noting that it would focus in part on a meeting Chambliss held with some victims of the accident who allege the Senator sought to dissuade them from filing a lawsuit.

“Constituent services are not legislative duties,” Tate said. “We think we can show the court that him coming down to Savannah and meeting with constituents was not legislative activity … but was constituent service.”

He added: “We think his meeting with my clients was clearly not a legislative activity, it was political.”

Tate asserts that Chambliss also met with Imperial Distributors Inc. executives — one of three companies, along with Savannah Foods & Industries Inc. and Stokes Contracting, named in the suit — and received confidential information that could serve as critical evidence in the case.

But Tate’s motion could face other challenges.

According to filings from the Senate Legal Counsel, the deposition would include questions about a July 2008 Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee hearing on the accident, which Chambliss participated in, although he is not a committee member. The subpoena also sought documents that Chambliss received from the companies named in the lawsuit.

The Senate Legal Counsel has argued that Chambliss is protected from disseminating any official documents under the chamber’s internal rules.

Specifically, Senate Rule XI governs the “withdrawal, printing, reading of and reference” of non-public papers and requires the Senate to approve the dissemination of those documents. The rule is frequently invoked in court actions often involving a Senator’s state office and employees who are involved with constituent casework.

In addition, Senate attorneys assert that Chambliss cannot be deposed because a state court cannot enforce a subpoena against a federal official.

In the meantime, Tate said an invitation to meet informally with Chambliss remains unanswered.

Chambliss’ campaign has criticized Tate, asserting that the subpoena — originally issued for Oct. 30 — is politically motivated.

The Republican Senator faces a runoff election against challenger and state Rep. Jim Martin (D) on Dec. 2.

Tate denies those allegations, although he acknowledged he has held fundraisers for and donated to Democratic candidates.

“I’m a Democrat and I always have been,” Tate said, but he later added that he does not support Martin. “I’m not the one who started this. This was started back in February when the plant blew up because it wasn’t maintained properly.”