RALEIGH — Republican Sen. Richard Burr has been accused by a Democratic opponent of voting against protecting rape victims working as contractors in Iraq, a charge that he denies.
North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall noted that Burr was one of 30 Republican senators who voted last week against an amendment that grew out of a publicized case of a Halliburton employee who was gang-raped by co-workers.
"Senator Burr has obviously been in Washington too long," said Marshall, who is one of two Democrats who say they will challenge Burr's 2010 bid for a second term. She is also a founder of a rape crisis center. "This is a clear-cut case of right versus wrong, and Richard Burr got it wrong."
Burr has also drawn criticism from TV comedian/commentator Jon Stewart.
But a Burr spokesman said the case was far more complicated, and the amendment offered by Democratic Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., would not have accomplished what its supporters advertised.
"Senator Burr believes violence against women is despicable and intolerable, and those who have committed or abetted such heinous crimes should be subjected to the full weight of the law," said David Ward, Burr's chief spokesman. "Unfortunately, the Franken amendment would not do anything to protect women from violence or to punish criminals. If it had, Senator Burr would certainly have voted for the amendment."
The motive for the bill
The legislation grew out of an incident involving Jamie Leigh Jones, a Houston woman who has testified before Congress that she was gang-raped by seven fellow firefighters at a Halliburton/KBR camp in Baghdad in 2005. She said 38 women have come forward through her foundation to report their own stories of sexual harassment or rape while serving in Iraq, Kuwait and other countries.
But Jones said she and others have been forced to take their complaints before closed arbitration panels rather than in open court before a judge and jury because of an arbitration agreement that was part of the contract they signed when they went to work for Halliburton/KBR.
Jones, who was 20 when she was assaulted, told a Senate committee, "I had no idea that the clause was part of the contract, what the clause actually meant, or that I would eventually end up in this horrible situation."
Franken offered an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that would ban federal funds going to companies that require arbitration in the case of sexual assault. The measure passed 68 to 30 with all the Democrats and all the Republican women voting for the Franken amendment.
"Contractors are using fine print to deny women like Jamie Leigh Jones their day in court," Franken said during the Senate debate.
But Ward, Burr's spokesman, said the Franken amendment would not protect women from rape, but would prevent contractors from getting paid. He said that the Defense Department under President Barack Obama opposed the amendment and that such arbitration agreements are nonbinding when it comes to criminal acts such as rape. Crimes can still be prosecuted by the government.
"Unfortunately," Ward said, "the Franken amendment was a cynical attempt by the trial lawyers to eliminate arbitration agreements, which limit their fees, behind the guise of protecting women."
Researcher Denise Jones contributed to this report.
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