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Scott Valley Protect Our Water – POW – in Siskiyou County, California
May 8, 2012
PNP comment: So this was President Carter’s doing! — Editor Liz Bowen
Published May 08, 2012
In this 1999 photograph, the Wyoming Range is seen. The state’s largest roadless area had been targeted for oil and gas leasing, but those efforts were withdrawn due to Congressional action. (Courtesy: Biodiversity Conservation Alliance)
Deep-pocketed environmental groups are collecting millions of dollars from the federal agencies they regularly sue under a little-known federal law, and the government is not even keeping track of the payouts, according to two new studies.
Under the Equal Access to Justice Act, or EAJA — which was signed into law by President Carter in 1980 to help the little guy stand up to federal agencies — litigants with modest means who successfully show government agencies wronged them can get their legal fees back from the taxpayer.
But the act also covers 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including environmental groups that aggressively sue the feds to enforce land-use laws, the Clean Water and Clean Air acts and laws protecting endangered species. Their lawyers are getting reimbursed at rates as high as $750 an hour, sources tell FoxNews.com.
“It was intended for helping our nation’s veterans, seniors and small business owners, but environmental groups have hijacked the so-called Equal Access to Justice Act and abused it to fund their own agenda,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., told FoxNews.com. “Then you have small businesses and the American taxpayers left to foot the bill.”
Environmental groups, however, argue that the act is an important tool in their efforts to protect the public’s interest in conservation, fighting pollution and ensuring the federal government follows its own rules.
“Litigation is not a moneymaker, and the litigation is being done to make a difference and make the world a better place,” Erik Molvar, executive director of the Wyoming-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, told FoxNews.com.
The exact taxpayer cost of the Equal Access to Justice Act remains unclear. The General Accounting Office, or GAO, tracked 525 legal fee reimbursements that totaled $44.4 million from 2001 through 2010, but found that only 10 of 75 agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior could provide data on cases and attorney fee reimbursements.
“As a result, there was no way to readily determine who made claims, the total amount each department paid or awarded in attorney fees, who received the payments or statutes under which the cases were brought for the claims [for fiscal years 2000 through 2010],” the GAO report reads.
Barrasso fears that is only the tip of the iceberg.
“You’re talking about millions and millions of dollars,” Barrasso said. “There is a pressing need for more accountability and transparency. Even the government doesn’t know how much it’s paying out — it’s disturbing.”
“You’re talking about millions and millions of dollars … Even the government doesn’t know how much it’s paying out — it’s disturbing.”
- Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
A recent Notre Dame Journal of Legislation article said the law had a noble purpose once, but has produced an “incalculable waste of taxpayer money.”
“It is among the most wide-reaching statutes in the U.S. Code, and what it attempts to do is as complex in execution as it is simple in concept: to aid those who would otherwise be truly hurt by fighting the government when it acts without justification,” wrote Lowell Baier, author of the article and president of the Boone and Crockett Club, a Montana-based conservationist group. “But it is clear that EAJA is in need of reform.”
Critics say the act needs to be reformed in order to serve its original purpose. Baier calls for limiting it to small businesses and individuals and withholding or at least limiting payments where plaintiffs prevail on “process instead of substance.”
In May, Barrasso and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., jointly introduced the Government Litigation Savings Act to reform the Equal Access to Justice Act. If passed, the bill would cap reimbursements at $200 per hour. It would also limit repetitive lawsuits and require full accounting of payments authorized by the Equal Access law, the GAO report found.
“Obviously it’s a David and Goliath situation when a senior citizen, small business or veteran takes on the federal government,” Lummis told FoxNews.com. “When money is being spent trying to practice the equivalent of defensive medicine, the money is not going to the environment — it’s just going to lawyers. And that was never the intent of those dollars.”