MISSOULA, Mt. – One vital prosecution witness at the W.R. Grace criminal trial ended his testimony to rave reviews and a second critical witness stumbled badly Tuesday.
EPA On-Scene Coordinator Paul Peronard ended three days of intense enduring questioning. Even with the stringent restrictions on what topics Judge Donald Molloy would permit Peronard to address, and the jack-in-the-box antics of defense pin-striped suiters bounding out of their seats with endless objections, lawyers in the courtroom not involved in the case said he did more than hold his own.
They repeated earlier comments that the Montana jurors believed him.
I don’t know what Grace’s lawyers thought. However, after lunch, Peronard was sitting by himself in the almost empty lobby outside the courtroom door. David Bernick, Grace’s very well-paid lead lawyer, sauntered by, sees the man he’d been grilling for two days, donned a broad smile, whipped his arms apart and bowed two or three times. Peronard looked puzzled.
Because of Molloy’s strictly enforced gag order forbidding anyone, including the courthouse janitor, from talking to the press, I couldn’t ask Bernick the meaning of the apparent tribute.
By mid-afternoon, Melvin Parker was on the stand. He was a key government witness that Molloy required today, rather than at the end of the batting order, as lead prosecutor Kris McLean had planned.
Parker bought 22 heavily contaminated acres of land at the base of Zonolite mines from Grace to use as a plant nursery, mushroom farm and winter storage area for 118 RVs and cars. He was to be a main player in McLean’s effort to prove the knowing endangerment charge, that Grace knew the land was contaminated and kept it secret.
The jury seemed willing to accept Parker’s answers to McLean’s questioning. They smiled at the old white-haired forester’s folksy replies. He talked about how he bought all the land and the buildings outside Libby from Grace in 1999. He tried to describe how his wife, their daughter and her husband worked at the nursery.
The government tried to introduce a photo showing Parker’s granddaughter playing in the yard, but Molloy upheld Grace’s objection.
Parker said he was assured by Alan Stringer, Grace’s man in Libby, that there was no hazardous material in the site which he bought two years after Grace closed the bedeviled vermiculite mine.
He said he first learned that there was asbestos in the vermiculite covering his land in the November 1999 stories on Libby in the Seattle P-I.
Stringer, Parker explained, showed up and said he was very disappointed in the P-I reporting and would “do anything it took, anything at all, to make it right.”
Stringer was also indicted in this case but died before trial.
McLean’s last question was on Parker’s health. Parker said he had an asbestos-related disease.
Defense lawyer Thomas Frongillo methodically set about to dismantle the government’s witness.
He spent almost an hour getting Parker to discuss various million dollar deals that he tried to craft with Grace, including buying hundreds of acres of forest land bordering the mine and, at one point, even the mine itself. They also went over the bidding war the Parkers had with Grace when the company wanted to buy back the contaminated nursery property. Parker testified that he found an offer from Grace for more than $900,000 “insulting” and also refused a $1.2 million offer – it was almost ten times what he had paid for it.
What brought scowls to the faces of some jurors and soft moans from spectators was when the lawyer had Parker repeat the answers he had given earlier to McLean about not having a clue that there was asbestos in the vermiculite.
Parker turned a bit surly and mumbled when Frongillo asked him about language he had written in his offer to Grace to buy the mine land seven years before the P-I stories. In that offer, he mentioned the presence asbestos type material on the property.
It became more painful to watch when the lawyer â€” who apparently did a lot more homework than the prosecution â€” pulled out a sworn deposition by Parker taken during a civil suit he brought against Grace.
Again, Parker contradicted many of the statements he had made to McLean.
Frongillio was just beginning to ask Parker about the 5,000 square foot house that EPA had provided him when Molloy ended the session. The cross examination resumes in the morning.
It will be amazing if McLean can patch this leaking boat up during redirect questioning.