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Protecting the environment or making money?

If you want to make money, suing the federal government under the guise of air, water or species protection will likely bring in big bucks. That’s essentially what a General Accounting Office report indicates. Environmental groups have been bolstering their finances by collecting $44.4 million from taxpayers between 2001 and 2010.

The route to the money is actually the reimbursement of attorney fees that falls under a little-known law called the Equal Access to Justice Act. And, while $44.4 million doesn’t seem like much out of the trillions of dollars in the federal budget (if there was a federal budget) there undoubtedly is millions more paid out the government can’t trace.

According to a GAO review of 525 legal-fee reimbursement cases, some stunning findings have been revealed. For example, only 10 of 75 agencies in either the Department of the Interior or the Department of Agriculture could even provide needed data on the fees reimbursed to attorneys. The other 65? Zilch!

“As a result,” the GAO reports says, “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).”

How does this money-maker work? The Equal Access to Justice Act was signed into law in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. The intent of the law was to help the “little guy” by awarding legal fees if he successfully showed a government agency had wronged him. But enterprising lawyers for environmental groups saw the act also covered non-profits (501(c)(3). Bingo! According to a report by Fox, these lawyers are getting as much as $750 an hour, all reimbursed by the taxpayers.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso pulls no punches in addressing the law: “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,” he told’s Joshua Rhett Miller. “Then you have small businesses and the American taxpayers left to foot the bill.”

Sen. Barrasso and Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis have jointly introduced the Government Litigation Savings Act in their respective chambers (S.1061 and H.R. 1996). It would reform the Equal Access to Justice Act by capping reimbursements at $200 per hour. It would also limit repetitive lawsuits and require full accounting of payments authorized by the equal access law.

According to Rep. Lummis, the government stopped tracking these reimbursement payments in 1995, making it “a dream come true for radical environmental groups.” Their bill is intended to stop the abuse of the system, notably, by environmental groups, she explains. The Senate bill has 12 co-sponsors while Rep. Lummis’ bill has 17 in the House. Both bills are in their respective chamber’s judiciary committees.

Environmental groups reportedly claim their lawsuits against the government are not a money-maker but only intended to “make the world a better place.” They only get reimbursed if they win the case.

So, judge the motive for yourself. As for me, I think its all about the money and that makes passing reforms like the Government Litigation Savings Act long overdue.


7 comments on “Protecting the environment or making money?

  1. Steve Sanders

    Terrible article. First you try to imply that all the 44.4 million of fees is from Environmental cases, yet no where in your article do you support that. could it be that 400k is reimbursment to environmental cases and 44 million is reimbursment to big oil lawers???

    Regardless why do you feel that someone who was proven to be wronged in court is not entitled to reimbursment. Is it ok if someone sues over gun rights infringement of the government to be reimbursed but not for causes you disagree with.

    It’s a shame that Trade Only would publish something like this rant.

  2. vissionquest

    There is a large difference between lawyers getting paid and environmental groups getting paid. This is common among every industry and every legal case, yet you are tring to blame conservation groups for the sins of the law profession.

  3. john ennis

    Sounds like it needs to be tightened but not trashed. Anything that keeps big business honest benefits all citizens.

  4. Bill

    How is paying lawyer fees (only if they win) to environmental lawyers preventing veterans, seniors, and small business from doing the same? The overall assumption is that the environmentalists (even if they win) have no merit in these actions (where is the proof?). Sounds just like anti-environmentalist are pushing this. How ironic is it that a publication dependent on a clean environment is pushing this!

  5. C. Moore

    As soon as I saw “The environment” in the head line I knew that the web crawlers would get it & forward it to the types of people that have replied. So they could denounce you & your view & threaten the publiction that you represent.
    Norm You know that it happens every time.
    It not worth addressing the feeble minded any longer.
    They must have just got off the bus from Chicago.
    Everyone loves their lawyer but not the other ones…..

  6. Virginia Slim

    There is plenty of truth on both sides of this issue. I must say Norm is illustrating some valid and important points.
    I would also be surprised if there was only $44.4 million awarded to environmental lawyers between 2001 to 2010. That’s not much for ten years and probably millions of potential attorney billing houirs.

    I say that as a waterman plaintiff who has teamed up with environmentalists, Indians, property owners and others to sue several federal agencies over an environmentally devastating project they permitted which we finally stopped and proved to be illegal. When we won in federal court in 2009, whatever our various attorneys may have gotten for the 12+ years they represented us for practically nothing, they deserved.

    However, in recent years some of the more strident environmental groups have indeed been treating many of the environmental laws & lawsuits as cash cows. I have even concluded that the Endangered Species Act has recently been much abused by some groups who have used the ESA with every intention of generating money by bringing suit against state or federal government. I say that as a strong supporter of the ESA, but not its abuse. The ESA has been abused by both the Bush and Obama administrations, but in totally different ways.

    The recent NMFS ESA listing of Atlantic Sturgeon as Endangered, is particularly likely to result in massive amounts of litigation on the entire East Coast. The listing is unwarranted and there will be no winners except lawyers on each side. There has been a total moratorium on possession of any East Coast sturgeon for a minimum of 15 years and much longer in most places. The population is widely known to be expanding in most parts of its range, not diminishing. Countless East Coast marine activities that interact with sturgeon will be potentially affected very negatively. If you think Manatee speed zones were inconvenient, just wait and see what may happen with sturgeon in East Coast waters from Maine to Florida and from Bermuda to the whole east Coast fall line and even above.

    However, this case has provoked a backlash from Congress that goes straight to an important point that Norm reports on in the above article. (For example, only 10 of 75 agencies in either the Department of the Interior or the Department of Agriculture could even provide needed data on the fees reimbursed to attorneys. The other 65? Zilch!
    “As a result,” the GAO reports says, “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).”)

    That is STUNNING that those agencies can’t tell the GAO how much they spent on attorney reimbursements. STUNNING!

    You can tell how stunned and angry Congress was about it too when the House Natural Resources Committee’s Oceans and Fisheries Subcommittee held oversight hearings on the NOAA/NMFS budget in December 2011 and March 2012. In December the Oceans and Fisheries Subcommittee ordered NMFS to bring in the data that showed how much litigating the ESA has cost all parties, including the government. At the March oversight hearing, the top persons in NOAA and NMFS showed up with nothing, absolutely nothing. No idea of how much had been spent. The Congressmen went somewhat ballistic, severly reprimanded the heads of NOAA and NMFS and practically dared them to come back next time without the data. You can watch and read about it at these links.

  7. goboatinginflorida

    When it comes to business pursuits directly tied to water and natural environments,we owe a debt of gratitude to the “activists”,which by the way,can directly include our own cuustomer base.

    The message is clear- the citizens of the United States do not wish to weaken Environmental Protection standards.

    So,then what,in the face of pressures to reduce protection? Write a letter to Trade Only??

    The courts are there for a reason.

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