Judge Won’t Recuse Himself From Shipyard-Cleanup Suits

The former Hunters Point shipyard near San Francisco in October 2018. (Nicholas Iovino / CNS)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Refusing to recuse himself from 23 lawsuits claiming widespread fraud in the $1 billion cleanup of a radiation-contaminated shipyard, a federal judge said Friday a Navy contractor’s claim of bias against him “borders on the frivolous.”

This week, Tetra Tech asked U.S. District Judge James Donato to recuse himself from litigation over claims the company falsified soil tests in a nuclear radiation cleanup project at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. More than 10,000 homes are slated to be built on the 400-acre site in southeastern San Francisco. It’s one of the largest redevelopment projects in the city’s history.

In its filing Wednesday, Tetra Tech lawyer Davina Pujari of Hanson Bridgett in San Francisco claimed Donato’s statements in a recent ruling and hearings in a related criminal case smack of bias.

In an Oct. 18 denial of motions to remand homeowners’ lawsuits to state court, Donato stated the U.S. Navy paid Tetra Tech and its subsidiary approximately $300 million “for work they did not do, as plaintiffs allege.”

The use of “as plaintiffs allege” in that ruling indicates the judge was summarizing litigants’ claims, not expressing his own opinion, Donato said.

“Tetra Tech’s suggestion to the contrary borders on the frivolous,” Donato wrote Friday.

Pujari also called into question comments Donato made at a May 2018 sentencing hearing for Justin Hubbard, one of two former Tetra Tech supervisors who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight months in prison for falsifying records in the cleanup.

A dilapidated sign announcing the redevelopment of the Hunters Point shipyard near San Francisco. (Nicholas Iovino / CNS)

During that hearing, Donato said he was “very skeptical that this was something that he came up completely on his own in his own personal choice and acted on it,” hinting at the potential involvement of higher-level Tetra Tech employees in the fraud.

Pujari argued these and other statements show Donato has “pre-judged the facts” regarding whether the U.S. Navy paid Tetra Tech for work it did not perform.

Donato said the discussion in that sentencing hearing was intended only to assist him in “determining a just punishment” for the defendant.

“No reasonable or thoughtful person would conclude that the court has pre-judged the merits or lacks impartiality with respect to Tetra Tech’s potential liability,” Donato wrote.

Reached for comment on the ruling, Tetra Tech spokesman Sam Singer said the company’s lawyers had an “ethical and legal obligation to raise this issue with the court.”

Donato is presiding over three whistleblower lawsuits, for which the United States intervened as a plaintiff, and 20 lawsuits brought by homeowners claiming Tetra Tech and its subsidiary Tetra Tech EC defrauded the government in the $1 billion cleanup project.

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