by Richard Pollock
Without any oversight, accounting, or transparency, environmental activist groups have surreptitiously received at least $37 million from the federal government for questionable “attorney fees.” The lawsuits they received compensation for had nothing to do with environmental protection or improvement.
The activist groups have generated huge revenue streams via the obscure Equal Access to Justice Act. Congressional sources claim the groups are billing for “cookie cutter” lawsuits — they file the same petitions to multiple agencies on procedural grounds, and under the Act, they file for attorney fees even if they do not win the case. Since 1995, the federal government has neither tracked nor accounted for any of these attorney fee payments.
Nine national environmental activist groups alone have filed more than 3,300 suits, every single one seeking attorney fees. The groups have also charged as much as $650 per hour (a federal statutory cap usually limits attorney fees to $125 per hour).
In well over half of the cases, there was no court judgment in the environmental groups’ favor. In all cases, whether there was any possible environmental benefit from the litigation is highly questionable. Most cases were simply based upon an alleged failure to comply with a deadline or to follow a procedure.
A whistleblower who was employed for 30 years by the U.S. Forest Service told Pajamas Media:
Some organizations have built a business doing this and attacking the agencies on process, and then getting “reimbursed.”
This week a bipartisan group of congressional members introduced legislation to end the secrecy of the payments and force the government to open up the records to show exactly how much has been paid to the groups and the questionable attorney fees. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming), Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah).
Congressional sources have said the disclosure was necessary to determine the extent of fraud and abuse. The $37 million is considered only a fraction of what has been paid out to the activist groups.
“For too long, taxpayers have unwittingly served as the financiers of the environmental litigation industry,” Rep. Bishop, who also is the chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, said.
Rep. Herseth Sandlin remarked: “Simply put, this legislation is about ensuring good and open government.”
“It’s time to shine some light [on the program],” explained Rep. Lummis, who said the groups have created an industry that “supports their ‘stop everything’ agenda.”
The $37 million figure is considered low. It includes less than a dozen groups and only accounts for cases in 19 states and the District of Columbia. There are hundreds of eco-activist groups in the United States.
According to the whistleblower who served in the U.S. Forest Service, environmental activist groups typically file identical lawsuits to multiple agencies on procedural grounds, such as a missed deadline.
The identity of the huge revenue stream was established by the Western Legacy Alliance (“WLA”), along with Wyoming-based attorney Karen Budd-Falen. Western Legacy Alliance was founded in 2008 by ranchers and resource providers who raise beef and lamb on public lands of the West. What they found was astounding.
Examining court records in 19 states and in the District of Columbia, the total amount paid to less than a dozen environmental groups exceeded $37 million. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Budd-Falen. “We believe when the curtain is raised we’ll be talking about radical environmental groups bilking the taxpayer for hundreds of millions of dollars, all allegedly for ‘reimbursement for attorney fees.’ And what is even more maddening is that these groups are claiming that they are protecting the environment with all this litigation when not one dime of this money goes to projects that impact anything on-the-ground related to the environment. It just goes to more litigation to get more attorney fees to file more litigation.”
The whistleblower, speaking anonymously, told Pajamas Media the payments to the activists groups were “quite astronomical.” The former government agent was a line officer in a high-ranking position. That whistleblower added that the filings by the radical groups often were “canned” petitions that contained little research. In this way, environmental groups could pepper government agencies with a flood of lawsuits without much work.
“They will send a myriad of lawsuits across the bow to try to stop a number of projects or programs and then they hopefully will score with one or two,” he said. He saw a lot of the activist lawsuit filings because he had been attached both to the Forest Service’s Washington headquarters and to its field offices. “Then they will send in bills that are quite frankly, quite astronomical compared to the actual work they had to do to file an actual lawsuit. Many of the lawsuits are filed under a lot of canned material, yet the hours and rates that they charge were quite high.”
Here is a sampling of the number of assembly line “lawsuits” filed between 2000 and 2009 that have been painstakingly identified by the Western Legacy Alliance and Budd-Falen. Activist group Western Watersheds Project filed 91 lawsuits in the federal district courts; Forest Guardians (now known as WildEarth Guardians) filed 180 lawsuits; the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed at 409 suits; the Wilderness Society filed 149 lawsuits; the National Wildlife Federation filed 427 lawsuits; and the Sierra Club filed 983 lawsuits. These numbers do not include administrative appeals or notices of intent to sue.
Even local or regional environmental groups have figured out ways to turn on the taxpayer spigot. WLA found the Idaho Conservation League filed 72 lawsuits and the Oregon Natural Desert Association filed 50. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance filed 88 lawsuits. At last count, just eight local groups in nine Western states have filed nearly 1,600 lawsuits against the federal government.
On the national level, over the last decade nine national environmental groups have filed 3,300 cases against the federal government. As is usual, the vast majority of the cases deal with the alleged procedural failings of federal agencies, not with substance or science.
Said the Forest Service officer: “A lot of times they will sue on process, and not on substance. And substance means what difference does it mean for the resource, or what’s going in on the ground? A lot of times, it will be a process lawsuit and a lot of times the agency either missed something. … The bottom line is many, many times, when you look at the results on the ground, it [the environmental group winning the litigation] would have made very little difference.”
Karen Budd-Falen said that the cases amounted to a ripoff of taxpayers and rewarded radical groups with millions of dollars. “Although those of us involved in protecting property rights and land use in the West were aware that radical groups were getting exorbitant fees simply be filing litigation against the government, we had no idea of the magnitude of the problem.”
Budd-Falen highlighted one case that typifies the gravy train that has flowed to environmental groups. In 2009, the Earthjustice Legal Foundation represented the Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the Vermont Natural Resources Council in a case dealing with the process used by the Forest Service to adopt some regulations. The Earthjustice Legal Foundation filed for attorney fees for that single case that took only one year and three months to complete.
The same suit was filed by the Western Environmental Law Center on behalf of other environmental groups. The seven total attorneys who worked on the case billed the federal government $479,242. They charged between $300 to $650 per hour, far above the statuary federal cap of $125. The case was resolved at the district court level and the federal government did not appeal.
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) also files a significant amount of litigation and receives lucrative attorney fees. In Washington State Federal District Court alone, CBD received attorney fees totaling $941,000 for only six cases. In the District of Columbia, it received more than $1 million in fees.
Fourteen groups identified as recipients of the Act’s funding are: the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Forest Guardians, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Western Watersheds Project, Defenders of Wildlife, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, WildEarth, Oregon Natural Desert Association, Oregon Wild, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Wyoming Outdoor Council.
One of the fourteen groups, the Center for Biological Diversity, called the two Republicans and one Democrat “rabid right-wingers” and said that the charges of abuse was “patently false and patently ridiculous,” according to Bill Snape, senior council for CBD.
Another study from Virginia Tech University discovered similar findings as a result of a comprehensive Freedom of Information Act request to five federal agencies. The Virginia Tech study also revealed that two of the agencies could provide absolutely no data on the Act’s payments.
Environmental organizations are among the most financially prosperous non-profits in the country. The Sierra Club alone in 2007 reported its total worth as $56.6 million. According to 2007 Internal Revenue Service records, the top ten environmental presidents receive as much as a half million dollars a year in annual compensation. Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, Inc reported $492,000 in executive compensation in 2007. The top ten highest grossing environmental executives all received at least $308,000 in compensation.
Environmental activist groups also have been among the most influential in throwing around political money. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, between 2000 and this year activist environmental political action committees have given $3.4 million in campaign contributions to candidates for federal office. About 87% of the money went to Democrats.
Richard Pollock is the Washington, D.C., editor for Pajamas Media and the Washington bureau chief of PJTV.