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Lawyers question TSA attorney's contacts in 9/11 suit

Counsel for victims' families alleges Martin had ties to airlines

By Phil Hirschkorn
CNN

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Government lawyer Carla Martin leaves court this week. She has been placed on paid administrative leave.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The government lawyer blamed for damaging prosecutors' case against Zacarias Moussaoui might be a factor in another September 11 case, attorneys for victims' families say.

E-mails used to show that Carla Martin had coached government witnesses in the Moussaoui trial also expose an "incestuous and inappropriate relationship" between the Transportation Security Administration and airlines, say attorneys for families of some victims.

Martin, a TSA lawyer, is among dozens of government attorneys who helped prosecutors prepare government employees to testify and assembled documents to be introduced as evidence in the Moussaoui case.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema found that Martin violated a court order instructing witnesses to avoid following court proceedings or discussing them with each other until they had testified.

Moussaoui's sentencing trial came to a halt this week after it was discovered Martin had e-mailed commentary, opening statements and witness testimony to a half-dozen scheduled aviation security witnesses.

Brinkema initially barred aviation security as a subject from the rest of the trial. But in a ruling Friday, she agreed to a prosecution-proposed compromise -- allowing the government to call "untainted" aviation witnesses and present evidence not handled by Martin.

In the civil case, the plaintiffs' attorneys contend the e-mail chain released this week in the Moussaoui trial shows Martin had a chummy relationship with attorneys from American and United airlines and suggests witnesses in the civil case may also have been subjected to improper coaching.

Hijackers took control of two American and two United airliners September 11, 2001, crashing two into the World Trade Center twin towers and a third into the Pentagon. The fourth went down in a field in rural western Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.

About 90 families of victims are suing the airlines for negligence and wrongful death. They opted out of the government's $7 billion victim-compensation fund so they could sue the airlines.

In seeking the death penalty against Moussaoui, the government is trying to prove that he withheld information that could have prevented the attacks.

But attorneys for the airlines argue in the civil case that their clients aren't liable for the deaths because security measures in place then couldn't have prevented the hijackings.

"I am not surprised that [Martin's] personal view is the same as American and United's view on 9/11 -- that view being nothing they could have done would have prevented 9/11. It's a view I vigorously disagree with," Jim Kreindler, who is representing some of the families, told CNN.

Moussaoui attorneys noted in court papers filed Thursday that "the government and the airlines are taking a completely different position in one case to save money, while taking another to execute a defendant."

Moussaoui prosecutor Robert Spencer told the jury in opening statements March 6 that the FAA and airlines would have imposed tighter passenger screenings for small knives and boxcutters if Moussaoui had told the truth.

The next day, Martin e-mailed FAA witnesses a complaint that Spencer had implied the FAA "would have caught the hijackers and prevented 9/11."

In a March 8 e-mail to FAA security official Lynne Osmus, Martin wrote, "All of us aviation lawyers were stunned by the opening."

Martin referred to United Airlines attorney Jeff Ellis and American Airlines attorney Chris Christensen as "my friends," who shared her analysis. The e-mail chain indicates she received the trial transcripts from the airline attorneys.

"The opening [statement] has created a credibility gap that the defense can drive a truck through," Martin continued. "There is no way anyone could say that the carriers could have prevented all short-bladed knives from going through."

Osmus replied, "Got your message. And agree we need to be careful in describing how these measures would have impacted the attack."

The same day, Martin e-mailed Pat McDonnell, a retired FAA director of intelligence who was a listed defense witness at the time, "There are big gaps that the defense can exploit."

Martin concluded, "As you can see, Claudio, Lynne, Ed Soliday and Larry Wansley have their work cut out for them."

Osmus, Claudio Manno, Soliday and Wansley were on the government witness list in the Moussoaui trial.

Manno is another FAA security official. Soliday, United's former vice president in charge of safety, quality assurance and security, testified before the government's September 11 commission at the same hearing in January 2004 as Manno.

Wansley, American's former managing director for corporate security, was interviewed by the commission.

Ellis and Christensen did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment.

But in a letter to U.S. District Judge Allan Hellerstein, who is hearing the civil case, co-counsel at Christensen's firm, Condon and Forsyth, write, "There have been no communications between counsel for American Airlines and Carla Martin or anyone else at the TSA regarding the Moussaoui trial."

Christensen has not talked to Martin in more than a year and never discussed the Moussaoui case with her, the letter says, while asserting "there is nothing improper about an attorney for an airline communicating with a government attorney for the agency that regulates the industry."

United Airlines spokesman Jeff Green said, "United's actions have been entirely appropriate, as has been the behavior of our outside counsel."

Kreindler said that he wants to know more about any relationships.

"We are very concerned that it appears there is communication between the defense lawyers and Carla Martin," Kreindler said.

Kreindler and other September 11 plaintiff's attorneys say they are concerned about a government back channel to the airlines, who are defendants in the civil suit pending before Hellerstein in Manhattan.

"These developments reveal far more than the appearance of impropriety," plaintiffs' attorneys Gregory Joseph and Robert Clifford wrote Hellerstein.

The e-mails "cast doubt on the impartiality" of the TSA's handling of security documents at the center of the Septmber 11 suits, the attorneys said.

Joseph and Clifford have asked Hellerstein to order the TSA counsel's office, where Martin worked until she was placed on leave with pay this week, to disclose all its communications with the airlines counsel and "inquire into the mutual back scratching relationship that appears to exist between the defendants and the TSA."

The TSA declined to comment.

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