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Alabama engineer sues major defense contractor for racial discrimination

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

An engineer in Huntsville, Ala., is suing a major defense contractor, arguing he was fired because of his national origin after he spoke Hindi on the job. His lawsuit has drawn the support of a high-powered former federal prosecutor with experience in national security cases. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Anil Varshney worked for decades as a systems engineer in the missile defense industry, until one day, when he answered a video phone call from his dying brother-in-law in India.

ANIL VARSHNEY: And we talked in Hindi - my native language - for less than two minutes. And next thing I know that I was fired.

ELLIOTT: The defense contractor, Parsons Corporation, had a security guard escort him out of the building.

VARSHNEY: Oh, it was the most embarrassing time of my life. I said, after 22 years of dedicated, loyal work for this missile, and I was so proud of working here.

ELLIOTT: Varshney, who is 78, has filed a federal lawsuit against Parsons and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency alleging discrimination based on race, color, national origin and age. He says there had been a pattern of mistreatment that singled him out because of his nationality.

VARSHNEY: I was called the thing. They would interrupt me, like what I say doesn't mean too much. So these kinds of behavior, you know, you finally become numb to them.

ELLIOTT: Varshney is a naturalized U.S. citizen and raised his family in Huntsville. The North Alabama city is a hub for the defense and space industries. He says despite the work environment, he never filed a formal complaint with the Parsons Corporation, worried that he could be labeled a problem employee. The Virginia-based firm says that's an issue that Varshney's allegations of discrimination had never been raised internally and are unsubstantiated. Through a spokesman, company representatives declined to be interviewed for this story, providing only a written statement. It says Varshney's termination had nothing to do with his national origin, race or age but that he was fired for using a camera on his cellphone at a classified work site - a security violation. Varshney says white colleagues were never punished for similar behaviors and believes he was unfairly targeted. Former New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara agrees.

PREET BHARARA: He was discriminated against because of who he was, where he came from and how he spoke.

ELLIOTT: Bharara, now in private practice, says this is not typically the kind of case he would take on but that he was inspired by Varshney's story - one similar to his own family's of immigrating from India to make a better life.

BHARARA: I was moved by his contributions to the country. And I was horrified by the way that he appears to have been treated. I think that Mr. Varshney has shown himself to be as patriotic and American as anybody who was born in this country, working in the service of the defense of this country. And I think it's very, very unfortunate that he has had to suffer what he's had to suffer, given that track record and background.

ELLIOTT: Anil Varshney says he's not been able to find defense work since being fired by Parsons. He says the company has effectively blackballed him from his career.

VARSHNEY: I want my name back. I want justice. I don't want people in my situation to be treated like this with - by these companies. The companies should learn that they just cannot get by this.

ELLIOTT: The lawsuit seeks to have Varshney reinstated and awarded lost wages.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Huntsville, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.