< Re-evaluating a Convenient Narrative


Friday, October 25, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:  In 2007, an employee of Halliburton’s subsidiary, KBR, named Jamie Leigh Jones alleged a brutal gang rape by her fellow employees in Iraq, an attack so violent as to disfigure her, and one for which the physical evidence, a rape kit, had mysteriously vanished. The narrative was tragically familiar: woman victimized by men, then again by institutional malice, inflicted, in this case, by the US government and, enough said, Halliburton. Here was Brian Ross on ABC’s 20/20.


BRIAN ROSS:  But now Jamie Leigh Jones is coming forward tonight on 20/20 to finally talk about what she says happened, a story of sexual brutality, corporate indifference and government inaction.


BOB GARFIELD:  Ross depicted an ongoing outrage, one which Jones could not even take to court because her employment contract with KBR mandated private arbitration. Her story was prominently featured in Hot Coffee, the HBO documentary about corporations denying the rights of citizens to petition the judiciary.


JAMIE LEIGH JONES:   I went public because I wanted to bring awareness to the situation, that there is a loophole in our justice system that needed to be fixed very quickly, if I could just, you know, get this out there, what happened to me, that maybe, you know, people would change the law; somehow the laws would change.


BOB GARFIELD:  Jones eventually did win the right to a trial, but by the 2011 proceedings the media had done all the reporting they were gonna do. In fact, the film Hot Coffee was released in the middle of the trial. Mother Jones Reporter Stephanie Mencimer, who had written about Jamie Leigh Jones and appeared in the movie, attended that premiere, The event got her freshly curious, and she launched an investigation, the results of which appeared in this month’s Washington Monthly.

STEPHANIE MENCIMER:  I went back to my office the next day, I thought, oh, well I wonder what kind of smoking guns they’ve  turned up, I wonder what sort of evil things Halliburton and KBR really did. And then, when I took a look at the trial records, I literally like fell out of my chair. It was just so different from everything that we’d been told about what happened to her.

Jamie had been saying that she had been gang raped by at least five people, and there was no DNA of anybody, except for one guy who never said he didn't have sex with her. He argued all along that he had consensual sex with her. There was no physical evidence that she'd been raped. There were photographs that showed that she didn't have a bruise on her body. Her pectoral muscles were never torn. The, the rape kit was never lost. It was sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, and everything was evaluated. So all that came out at the trial, and it completely undermined the story she had been telling for the previous couple of years in public.

BOB GARFIELD:  There was testimony about previous allegations that Jones had made, of rape.

STEPHANIE MENCIMER:  I think that was the most troubling, in some ways. When she first alleged that she’d been gang raped in Iraq, it was the fourth time in five years that she had told a doctor that she had been raped. It just seemed unlikely that someone would have that bad of luck.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now, you went back to your editors at Mother Jones, and said, well, I guess we better clarify the record, and  your editor said, are you sure you want to do this?

STEPHANIE MENCIMER:  I, you know, wanted to make sure I was, I knew what I was getting myself into because this was likely to be really controversial and we would be taking a lot of flack for it. But Mother Jones absolutely 100 percent supported publishing the story. So I, I did actually write a fairly lengthy online piece during the trial, basically a prediction that Jamie Leigh Jones was gonna lose, and here's why. It’s hard to be a journalist and look at what I saw and not see that this is a good story. You know, you'd have to be a real ideologue not to recognize that there was news value in what I was finding.

BOB GARFIELD:  Well, on the subject of ideologues or just those who, who feared the consequences of this particular truth, what was the reaction?

STEPHANIE MENCIMER:  That one woman from – I can’t remember if it was from Jezebel or one of those sites, schooling me about how I clearly didn't understand the legal system [LAUGHS] and other people saying, well, you know, it's possible that someone could be raped twice, or three times, or four times. And they just didn't want to believe that KBR wasn’t the bad guy. You know, I got a fair amount of hate mail about that.

BOB GARFIELD:  Stephanie, it would be very easy to accuse you, in your early reporting, of failing to do any kind of due diligence on Jamie Leigh Jones’s story, but nobody can accuse you of [LAUGHS] not correcting the record. You have done a very long piece in the Washington Monthly, telling the story of Jamie Leigh Jones, from beginning to end. Have other outlets done the same? For example, ABC News, they rerun the Brian Ross piece on the eve of the trial. Have they ever come back to say, Jamie Leigh Jones, never mind?

STEPHANIE MENCIMER:  [LAUGHS] Not as far as I know. I think they may have, like, on their website reported very briefly that she lost at trial, but beyond that they’ve never explored why she lost. The Houston Chronicle, to their credit - this was their local story and they didn’t even cover the trial but after she lost, this reporter, Mike Tolson, went back and he wrote a fairly lengthy story about what happened. But even he, you know, will tell you that like 60 percent of what he wrote got cut out of the piece. [LAUGHS] You know, it was all very controversial. But, as far as I know, he's the only reporter who’s really taken a hard look at this.

BOB GARFIELD:  Were there people in your journalistic life or in your private life who kind of winced at the idea of you correcting the record, in this case?

STEPHANIE MENCIMER:  I remember Susan Saladoff, the producer of Hot Coffee, she asked me, why now, why do this? I think she felt like it would really kind of mess up Jamie's life. And she was right. I mean, I worried about that myself. But, at the same time, you know, Jamie had testified before Congress and she had apparently wrongfully accused someone of a crime, and I felt like there was a higher calling there.

BOB GARFIELD:  She had her day in court. She lost. What became of her?

STEPHANIE MENCIMER:  Well, KBR, actually, was very aggressive and went after her for filing a frivolous lawsuit, and they were able to get a ruling against her, ordering her to pay them $145,000 for their court costs. So, when that happened, she filed bankruptcy, but she filed a workers’ comp claim, got an [LAUGHS] annuity, I think, of like $175,000 of a workers’ comp claim to compensate for her posttraumatic stress disorder. And that was protected in the bankruptcy. So she did end up coming out of it with some money. [LAUGHS] She’s moved on. And I emailed her a little bit before the story came out to tell her it was coming, and she really doesn't ever want to talk about this again.


You know, the one thing I believe about her is she really thought that she was helping other women, and I think she really wanted to be kind of Erin Brockovich. She w - she was given an award by that Trial Lawyers Association at one point, that had also been given to Erin Brockovich, and I think she really liked that idea.

BOB GARFIELD:  Well, the irony of this story is she turned out to be Erin Brockovich, because she did help women. Tell me about the Franken legislation.

STEPHANIE MENCIMER:  Yeah, the Jamie Leigh Jones Act, that’s what it’s called. Al Franken, as the junior senator from Minnesota, the first piece of legislation he was able to get passed was an amendment that barred the Pentagon from contracting with companies that would require a sexual assault victim to arbitrate her claims. And that was what, what KBR had in place. And that law opened the door for other contractors who had been sexually harassed, that they would be able to go to court and have a jury of their peers hear their claims. And arbitration clauses are really hard to get out of, so this was a big deal. I’m not sure how frequently it’s been used since then, but it at least opens the possibility that women have a fighting chance to bring a real legitimate claim against an employer.

BOB GARFIELD:  Stephanie, thank you.

STEPHANIE MENCIMER:  Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:  Stephanie Mencimer is a reporter for Mother Jones. She wrote a 10,000-word piece on the Jamie Leigh Jones case for Washington Monthly.


Stephanie Mencimer

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Bob Garfield