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Grace judge weighs disputed testimony

MISSOULA – The federal judge in the W.R. Grace & Co. trial said Wednesday that a key government witness may have perjured himself.

“He came as close as I would ever want to see to perjury,” U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said, referring to the testimony of Robert Locke.

The defense earlier moved that Molloy strike part of Locke’s testimony. Molloy did not rule on the motion Wednesday. The Missoulian newspaper reported the proceedings on its Web site.

The Columbia, Md.-based Grace and five of its former executives are accused of poisoning the Libby community by knowingly exposing them to asbestos-laced vermiculite ore mined for decades by the company.

Locke, a former Grace executive, told jurors that one defendant, Robert Bettacchi, knowingly sold a contaminated tract of land to a married couple, Mel and Lerah Parker, in Libby.

Locke’s disputed statements came after testimony from the Parkers, who lived on the asbestos-contaminated mining property for six years, converting it into a tree nursery and mushroom farm. Both now have asbestos-related disease.

Locke, a former vice president of Grace’s construction products division, said he tried to talk Bettacchi out of selling the land because it was risky.

But in December 2004, Locke said under oath in a government interview that he had never discussed the properties with Bettacchi.

Defense attorneys accused the former official of fabricating the conversation out of spite. Locke left the company under bitter circumstances and later brought a civil lawsuit against Grace and Bettacchi, a former vice president. The case is pending.

Bettacchi’s attorney, Thomas Frongillo, said the conversation “magically reappeared” in Locke’s memory only after he read about the Parkers’ testimony on the Internet. Locke then volunteered the information to a federal agent from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Locke has admitted to “intermittently” following the trial on the Internet, in violation of the court’s order that both jurors and witnesses be sequestered from media coverage of the trial.

Molloy said he still must decide whether to order the testimony stricken, or to let the jurors determine if Locke is a credible witness.

Molloy’s assessment of Locke was not the first blow to the government’s case Wednesday.

The judge excused jurors before questioning prosecutors’ charges that Grace conspired to obstruct justice by lying to EPA investigators, and that the company violated the Clean Air Act by releasing asbestos dust they knew would cause death and illness.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean, the lead prosecutor, asked for patience and explained that proof of a conspiracy is emerging through internal documents and corporate memos.