Taxes fund environmental suits
Environmental law firms reap billions in fees to fund lawsuits
By MITCH LIES
The federal government has paid out billions of dollars to environmental groups for attorney fees and costs, according to data assembled by a Cheyenne, Wyo., lawyer.
Karen Budd-Falen of Budd-Falen Law Offices said the government between 2003 and 2007 paid more than $4.7 billion in taxpayer money to environmental law firms -- and that's just in the lawsuits she tracked.
The actual figure, she said, is far greater.
"I think we only found that the iceberg exists," she said. "I don't think we have any idea how much money is being spent. But I think it's huge."
In some cases, Budd-Falen said, intervening ranchers and farmers are paying for the defense of their farm and ranch practices and -- through their taxes -- paying for the opposing lawyers' attorney fees.
"That money is not going into programs to protect people, wildlife, plants and animals," Budd-Falen said, "but to fund more lawsuits."
Budd-Falen, whose firm regularly represents farms and ranches, for years was aware that nonprofit, tax-exempt environmental law firms were generating sizable revenue from attorney fees paid by the federal government. In June, she submitted a formal request asking the Department of Justice for information on just how much was being spent.
"They said they don't track that information," she said.
After the response, Budd-Falen sat down with a paralegal and started what she said was a time-consuming process of uncovering and compiling the data.
"The numbers were just shocking," she said.
"Somewhere this has to stop, and the government has to be held accountable for the money it's spending," she said.
Budd-Falen documented that between 2000 and 2009, three tax-exempt, non-profit environmental groups -- Western Watersheds Project, Forest Guardians and Center for Biological Diversity -- filed more than 700 cases against the federal government.
"Ranchers and other citizens are being forced to expend millions of their own money to intervene or participate in these lawsuits to protect their way of life when they have no chance of the same attorney-fee recovery if they prevail," Budd-Falen said.
Budd-Falen found in one 15-month-long case that Earthjustice Legal Foundation and the Western Environmental Law Center filed for $479,242 in attorneys' fees.
Brian Smith, a spokesman for Earthjustice, said the foundation counts on those fees in part because it represents groups free of charge. He said the foundation bases its fees on the going rates for attorneys.
Also, he said, if the government was doing its job, the foundation wouldn't be so active.
"If the government had been enforcing the laws during the Bush administration," he said, "there would be no jobs for nonprofit environmental lawyers.
"The environmental movement would love to retire and know that everything is safe, but that is not happening," he said.
Smith said he is confident President Barack Obama's administration will reduce the need for environmental lawsuits.
"The (Environmental Protection Agency) has been very active in the new administration," he said. "That has been encouraging to see how they are stepping in and enforcing the laws."
Budd-Falen, however, said she doubts the steady stream of lawsuits will stop, or even slow.
"Why would you stop filing litigation when you can get that kind of money?" she asked.
"They are not filing these suits to try and protect the environment," she said. "They are filing these suits to make money."
Environmental groups, she said, are eligible for government funds under the Equal Access to Justice Act, which provides for the award of attorney fees to "prevailing parties" in cases against the government.
In order to prevail, under the act, all a group has to do is show a government body changed some policy or program as a result of the suit.
The firms also are accessing government funds through the Judgment Fund, Budd-Falen said,. The fund is a line-item appropriation in the federal budget used for paying claims against the government.
Much of the funds to pay the attorney fees, she said, are being pulled from the budgets of cash-strapped regional offices of natural resource agencies.
"Those budget items ought to be used for range improvement projects, trails or campgrounds, whatever the agency is supposed to be doing," she said.
Budd-Falen in her research also documented salaries paid to top environmental executives. On top of that list was the $446,072 salary paid the president of the Environmental Defense Fund. Second was the $439,327 salary paid the president of the World Wildlife Fund.
Budd-Falen said it is important to bring to light the cost of environmental litigation in the hope Congress might scale it back.
Also, she said, it is important for the public to realize just how much taxpayer money is being spent on these cases.
"We are going to get back to this again and track some more of these dollars," she said, "because I think we ought to know (how much we're spending on this). And if Congress or the Justice Department won't do it, I think somebody has to."
Staff writer Mitch Lies is based in Salem. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org