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Determined lawyer battles government over sick nuclear workers

Bob Warren - A lawyer helping Savannah River Site workers

Unlike many lawyers, Bob Warren agreed to represent sick workers at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The pay has been low, but Warren has for 13 years handled their cases in hopes of gaining compensation from the federal government. He's
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Unlike many lawyers, Bob Warren agreed to represent sick workers at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The pay has been low, but Warren has for 13 years handled their cases in hopes of gaining compensation from the federal government. He's

The small green building behind the business center on Montreat Road is quiet these days – except for the corner office with a lawyer’s shingle hanging from a post.

It’s the domain of Bob Warren, a 71-year-old South Carolina native who almost went broke representing people sickened by radiation and chemicals at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons plant. Once the top barrister in a four-person legal office, Warren today is the only one left.

Warren, who has been slowed by Parkinson’s disease, shows up for work every day in what has become a 13-year fight against the federal government.

He takes calls from the families of ailing workers, examines piles of documents he’s obtained through open records requests, and collaborates with a fellow lawyer in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The work can be sad at times, but Warren says it’s hard to ignore the image of a person who got sick while employed at SRS, a 310-square mile complex near his South Carolina hometown of Allendale.

“Listening constantly to desperate situations didn’t give me much choice but to try and help them,’’ Warren said in an interview from Black Mountain, a small Appalachian city where he settled years ago.

By his count, Warren has represented hundreds of people who either worked on the Savannah River Site, or are relatives of those who have died from what they said were site-related illnesses.

He started assisting sick nuclear workers in 2002, soon after a federal program had been established to compensate former Department of Energy employees at atomic weapons sites, including SRS along the South Carolina-Georgia border.

Not long after the program’s inception, people complained that it was little more than a bureaucratic maze of rules so tedious that the average person couldn’t navigate it. Many were denied compensation that could have helped them pay bills.

Some people sought lawyers, only to be turned away because the attorneys believed the cases weren’t lucrative enough.

Warren was glad to take up the fight. It’s the kind of cause he has championed throughout a 42-year legal career that includes representation of African-Americans, union workers, American Indians and SRS employees.

“It’s always rewarding to follow your conscience,’’ he said. “It’s difficult to come up with the money to be able to help them. You’ve got phone bills and computers and all the other things that are inherent to a law practice. It’s been difficult, but kind of fun to see if you can outsmart the ‘corporation.’’’

Several years ago, as bills rose and income did not, Warren’s staff slowly left to take other jobs, leaving only Warren to run the practice from a small corner of the larger office building he once rented in Black Mountain. To keep the practice going, Warren wound up borrowing about $100,000, he said.

David Anderson, Warren’s former office manager, said Warren’s drive to help SRS workers reflects a career of aiding the less fortunate. Anderson had a summary of Warren’s work recorded in the minutes of a 2014 meeting of a federal health advisory board. Warren works with the advisory board on behalf of SRS workers.

“As a young lawyer, he took the rural cases other lawyers wouldn’t touch,’’ Anderson told the federal health panel during an April 29, 2014, meeting in Augusta, Ga. “He never made any money – still doesn’t – but earned a reputation (as) someone who would stand up for the little guy.’”

While many of his clients are still waiting for compensation, others have benefited from Warren’s work.

“I would never have received a penny had it not been for Bob Warren,’’ said J.D. Harkey of North Augusta, a former SRS worker with cancer who was awarded more than $300,000 through the federal compensation program. “He had the patience of Job and the expertise to go along with it.’’

In 2012, Warren helped persuade the federal government to make it easier for his clients – and hundreds of others – to receive compensation. The federal government declared that year that many people who worked at SRS from 1953 to 1972 could receive benefits without having to provide extensive medical records to prove their cases.

Many had tried unsuccessfully for years to show that their cancers were caused by working at SRS, but Warren says finding enough accurate records proved difficult. Often, the Department of Energy didn’t have the employees’ medical records or the records showing how much radiation people were exposed to were inaccurate, he said.

Lewis Pitts, a law school classmate of Warren’s and a former legal partner in South Carolina, said his friend’s motivation always has been to make a difference in society.

“It’s the ministry of law for him,’’ said Pitts, a South Carolina native well known in North Carolina for his work on civil rights and children’s issues. “Bob never looked at it as a business. He wanted to pursue justice and fairness and redress for people. He has been a bulldog.’’

Fraternity boy to activist

Bob Warren grew up like many white kids in the racially divided South of the 1950s and 1960s.

The son of a prominent Allendale merchant, he enjoyed the privileges of white society: exclusive swimming pools and the best seats in movie theaters, for instance. But he also remembers questioning as a youngster the reason for the segregated world he lived in.

One childhood incident is particularly notable.

Warren’s father, who ran a drug store, had a custom of providing cups of water to black residents who came into the business on hot summer days. But thirsty white customers got water in glasses at the drug store’s soda counter.

On a blistering day when he was 9, young Warren served a black man cold water in a glass. After the store clerks realized what had just unfolded, one of them told Warren’s father. Upon his return to the store after running an errand, the elder Warren took action that his son can’t forget.

“He said, ‘Which glass did you use?’ I said ‘I don’t know, I had three of them in the sink,’’ ‘Warren said. “And then everybody was looking at Daddy to see what he was going to do. Daddy broke the three glasses and then threw them in the trash can and told me not to do that anymore.

“That was a major deal. It showed me what the rules were. He didn’t want to do it – but if he hadn’t’ve broken that glass, he said that would have gotten all over town and he would have lost business.’’

Still, Warren wasn’t much of a rabble-rouser as a youth. He made good grades, played football and acted while he was a student at Allendale-Fairfax High. In 1963, the 5-foot 9-inch Warren won the North-South all-star high school football game’s co-outstanding player award.

He went on to Presbyterian College, joined a fraternity, played linebacker for the Blue Hose football team – where he was one of the team’s leading tacklers his senior year – and was elected student body president.

At the time, he still leaned conservative: He was a fan of future President Richard Nixon. He even had a Confederate flag on his high school ring.

Warren’s views changed for good after a long conversation with his college roommate, who was from St. Petersburg, Fla.

“He said: ‘How are you a Christian and two-thirds of your county is poor and not able to go to your church?’’’ Warren said, noting that he had an episode like Paul in the Bible being converted to Christianity. “I had kind of a Damascus Road experience.’’

Warren served a stint in the army after college, attended law school at the University of South Carolina, and in the early 1970s, returned home to open an office in Allendale.

Hometown squabbles

Instead of taking traditional legal cases when he returned home, Warren began representing African-Americans and others who were not part of the Allendale area power structure.

Those types of cases didn’t set well in the Deep South of the 1970s, particularly in tiny Allendale. Warren said an entire bridge club that his wife belonged to quit en masse to protest his effort to help blacks gain entrance to a community swimming pool. He also challenged policies at the Savannah River Site, a major employer, and he tangled with judges over how juries were picked. He said some judges were biased against the poor.

“At the time, he was perceived as a pinko communist trying to help Russia take over America,’’ said Tom Johnson, a South Carolina lawyer and friend of Warren’s.

“His moral code sometimes excluded all pragmatism. He was willing to pay the price for his principles. In Allendale at the time, that basically meant fighting for black people.’’

Warren’s work as a defense lawyer produced plenty of battles in the 1970s with then-local prosecutor Randolph Murdaugh III. Murdaugh said recently that Warren was too zealous, at times, for his own good.

“He was brand new and felt like he needed to explain to the court why he could do what he wanted to do,’’ Murdaugh said. “He would try to come into court with no coat and tie on, and the judges didn’t particularly like that. He and I had some run-ins, but I think he’s an excellent lawyer. He’s smart as a damned whip. He works hard. He tries to represent his clients well.’’

Warren, who learned to swim in a creek that now is part of SRS, was even arrested for trespassing during anti-nuclear demonstrations in and around the weapons complex in the 1970s.

During those days of protest, the young lawyer received a telephone call that would prepare him for later efforts to help SRS workers.

On the phone was a man claiming to have developed a rare blood disease while working at the expansive nuclear weapons complex. That man, George Couch, wanted to file a claim with the S.C. Worker’s Compensation Commission for benefits he said he was entitled to.

Intrigued, Warren took the case and began pushing methodically to collect the money for Couch. He sought records to prove the case. But federal officials said there were no records to show a link between working at the plant and the man’s illness, Warren recalled.

He ultimately lost the legal fight – only to learn years later that he’d been right, Warren said. Records existed showing that Couch and others had the disease after working at SRS, Warren said.

The response to his work in Allendale County and across South Carolina caused Warren to leave the Palmetto State 35 years ago and settle in the North Carolina mountains. He moved away after questioning whether his clients were getting a fair shake in South Carolina courts because of his political and legal stances.

Fight continues

Since moving to Black Mountain in 1980, Warren has handled cases similar to those in South Carolina. Among his clients have been Cherokee Indians, textile workers and African-Americans.

In one instance, he spent seven years in court representing the Cherokees in a lawsuit brought by a campground owner. The issue at one point centered on access to a river the tribe had traditionally used.

Warren’s office is adorned with plaques of recognition for his efforts. Those include a 2007 Silver Life membership award from the national NAACP, an award from an Asheville-area trade union, and an award from North Carolinians against Racist and Religious Violence.

Warren quietly acknowledges that he hasn’t made much money from the SRS cases. Why? The federal program limits attorneys fees – sometimes to as little as 2 percent of an award. Personal injury cases often can bring lawyers a third of the awards, if not more.

Linda Harper, a former SRS worker, said she appreciates the effort, despite the financial constraints on Warren. Her cancer-stricken father received compensation after Warren represented him.

“He’s done everything he could to help us,’’ said Harper, a Nashville, Tenn., resident. “He’s done a lot of work, he’s done a lot of studies. He didn’t quit. He continued to try for us.’’

These days, Warren, a grandfather of seven who is known for wearing red suspenders, is trying to persuade the federal government to expand the category of sick SRS workers who could become eligible for federal funds.

At some point, Warren said he and his co-counsel, Lowcountry lawyer Warren Johnson, will take the case to the government. Warren admits he’s slowing down and he’s glad he has the younger lawyer to collaborate with and handle cases. Johnson has increasingly aided Warren as the elder man’s Parkinson’s disease has progressed – but Warren said he isn’t done yet.

In late September, Warren received a stack of federal documents he’d been waiting on for three years. Warren’s eyes flashed with excitement as he explained how documents from the federal open records request may lead to more government concessions in favor of sick workers.

“We did get some preliminary documents about three months ago, but this is the big stuff,’’ he said. “If we can get this approved, the less suffering there will be.’’

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