Central Valley

Businessman wins lengthy battle with government

WASHINGTON -- A federal court has awarded a Lemoore Naval Air Station businessman $90,261 in attorneys fees and costs even though the businessman won only $400 in damages.

It's a big disparity. Then again, it's a case that seemingly went on forever.

"If you sue the government, it gets very expensive," Pleasanton-based attorney Steve McNichols said Friday. "They have attorneys who will fight you tooth and nail."

Put another way: Fighting takes time, and time is money.

In 1995, McNichols filed a lawsuit on behalf of a businessman who claimed the Navy breached his contract to operate a self-storage facility at Lemoore. In 1999, witnesses testified in San Francisco. In 2002, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims agreed the Navy had breached businessman Bill Hubbard's contract.

Finally, last Monday, a Court of Claims judge ended the ordeal by awarding legal fees that still won't cover all of Hubbard's expenses.

"It's just a travesty of justice," Hubbard said Friday.

The Navy and the Justice Department, through legal filings, explain their actions as perfectly defensible protection of the public interest.

McNichols says the federal government "abused" Hubbard in several respects. First came the original breach of contract, which a judge in 2002 characterized as "clear bad faith shown by the Navy." Then came the protracted wait for judge's opinion.

"It sat in purgatory for an extraordinarily long time," Hubbard said. "It's unbelievable that it could just sit in the judge's pocket."

Hubbard now lives in Granite Bay, east of Sacramento. In the mid-1980s, he was operating several mini-storage facilities and secured a contract to build a facility serving Lemoore.

With sailors and Navy aviators constantly on the move, Hubbard's Armed Forces Storage thrived. Between 1985 and 1995, it took in estimated gross revenues of $675,000. Hubbard, though, says business suffered when Navy Capt. Al Gorthy Jr. arrived as Lemoore base commander.

An experienced F-18 Hornet pilot and Top Gun veteran, Gorthy took over at Lemoore in July 1992. He put a priority on beautifying a base grown ragged with use.

"There were a lot of Lemoore buildings in dire need of upkeep," Gorthy testified, according to the trial transcript. "There were a lot of facilities ... that needed attention, and needed immediate attention."

One of the rundown buildings was the equipment rental center also used as an administrative office for the four mini-storage warehouses.

In August 1992, Gorthy advised Hubbard the old building would have to go. The rental center and mini-storage personnel would be relocated about two miles away.

"He said, 'I'm going to demolish the office in 90 days,"' Hubbard testified.

Hubbard protested, arguing that the mini-storage business required staffers to remain close to the warehouses. His problems began proliferating. Phone service was cut off. Office hours were reduced.

Lemoore firefighters on an unexpected training exercise drenched the storage warehouses with water.

Eventually, the Navy moved the equipment rental and mini-storage personnel two miles away, with the since-retired Gorthy calling the new staffing location "more convenient" for Lemoore sailors. The federal court didn't buy it, contending the Navy's treatment of Hubbard amounted to "harassment."

Hubbard asked for $627,000, which he calculates is the potential profit the Navy's actions cost him. Instead, the court awarded only $400 for damages to a concrete slab caused by other contractors parking at the site.

The Justice Department argued this $400 in damages was so slight that it didn't justify the payment of attorneys fees. Yet another federal appellate court ruled otherwise last year, setting the stage for the final ruling Monday.

Hubbard is still running Armed Forces Storage, under a renegotiated contract that included his building a new office at the original mini-storage location.

"It is a painful process," Hubbard said.