Judge allows Blackwater to open center

June 4, 2008 5:52:39 PM PDT
A federal judge Wednesday ordered the city to allow military contractor Blackwater Worldwide to begin using a new counterterrorism training center in a warehouse outfitted with an indoor firing range. District Judge Marilyn Huff ruled that the company would suffer irreparable harm if it could not begin holding classes there for Navy sailors.

Blackwater sued last month to force the city to issue final occupancy permits after the required inspections were already approved, claiming officials upended normal procedures because they feared a political backlash.

The city responded that the company misled officials about the nature of the center, which includes a multilevel mock ship built out of cargo containers, to avoid triggering a full review by the city planning commission and a possible City Council vote.

Huff found that other firing range operators in the city had not been required to undergo similar reviews.

Classes for sailors will begin Thursday, according to Brian Bonfiglio, a Blackwater executive overseeing the project. They were originally set to begin at the center Monday but were suspended pending the judge's ruling.

"I am officially ecstatic," Bonfiglio said.

The city said in a statement that it would probably appeal.

It said Blackwater's plan to use the warehouse for "paramilitary training" makes it different from other firing ranges. Sailors would move around the mock ship with firearms instead of remaining stationary, as at an indoor firing range.

The company said the San Diego center would be used only to provide contracted training for the Navy, not for training its own overseas security workers.

"This is not a paramilitary outfit at all; it is a training facility for American sailors, and the intent is to help them save their lives and the lives of others and save their ships," said Blackwater attorney Michael Neil.

Blackwater, the largest private security company in Iraq, has been under scrutiny as a federal grand jury in Washington investigates the company's involvement in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians. The company is also under investigation for possible weapons smuggling. Blackwater denies the allegations.

Blackwater applied for routine inspection permits as Raven Development Group, a name its lawyers said the company had used for other projects. Blackwater never explicitly sought permission to convert a warehouse into a school, in part because it is in an industrial area near the border already zoned for vocational facilities.

Blackwater lawyers said in court May 30 that they had been honest in their dealings with city inspection agencies. They argued it was too late for the city to demand they go to the planning commission because inspectors had already approved the required permits.

Attorneys for Blackwater said the company risked losing part of a $400 million Navy contract if it could not begin training sailors in counterterrorist defense tactics by next week. The program is part of a firearms training initiative started after the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in a Yemeni port by terrorists in a small boat.

The company has argued that elected officials moved to block the project for political reasons ahead of the citywide primary election held Tuesday.

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