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W.R. Grace trial delayed at least a year

| September 13, 2006 12:00 AM

The criminal trial of W.R. Grace and company officials charged with conspiracy and other offenses related to the company's vermiculite mining operations in the Libby area from 1963 to 1990 isn't expected to start for at least another year.

In an order issued last week, Judge Donald Molloy of the U.S. District Court in Missoula vacated the Sept. 11 trial date and advised attorneys for both sides to be available beginning in September 2007 and continuing through February 2008.

Molloy noted that the expectation that the case can be tried during that span is based on an assumption that the U.S. Court of Appeals will grant expedited treatment to an appeal filed in late August by federal prosecutors.

"If the appeal is expedited, it is likely given the current briefing schedule that the case could be argues in the spring of 2007 and it is possible that there could be a resolution in time to try the case in the fall of 2007," he wrote. "If the appeal is not expedited, it is unlikely that the trial will begin before 2008."

The company and individual defendants Alan Stringer, Henry Eschenbach, Jack Wolter, William McCaig, Robert Bettachi, Mario Favorito and Robert Walsh were indicted by a grand jury in early 2005 on charges of conspiring to violate the Clean Air Act and endanger others by knowingly releasing asbestos into the air as well as conspiring to defraud the government by impeding the efforts of regulatory agencies.

In June, Molloy dismissed the "knowing endangerment" portion of a conspiracy charge on the grounds that the five-year statute of limitations had expired. Federal prosecutors had argued that the defendants' actions after 1999 furthered both the defrauding and endangerment portions of the conspiracy, and a new indictment, issued on June 26, added language to that effect. That indictment was also dismissed by Molloy on grounds that it did not meet statute of limitations requirements.

The trial of Grace and five of the individual defendants was scheduled to start on Sept. 11 while a second trial for Stringer and Favorito was set to start next March. Molloy granted requests from Stringer and Favorito to be tried separately from the other defendants, finding that evidence to be presented by Stringer and Favorito in their defense might result in prejudice against Grace. He also found that they could be tried together without risking prejudice against one another. The judge denied similar requests for separate trials from the other defendants.