Forest Service employees and activist face racketeering charges
Developers’ attempt to silence critics of condo project could make history
Sandy Steers has never considered herself a mobster. The children’s author and screenwriter moved to the north shore of Big Bear Lake in Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains four years ago. She wanted to escape the fast-growing south shore, and hoped that the rustic town of Fawnskin — with only 400 full-time residents, no stoplights and no chain stores — would stay quiet and rural.
But once she realized developers had their eyes on the town, she helped launch Friends of Fawnskin, a group dedicated to monitoring growth. Last May, the Friends won a court injunction to halt construction of Marina Point, a 133-unit condominium and marina project on the lake shore. "A gated condo project doesn’t fit our rural setting," says Steers, the group’s executive director. "Basically, it would change the whole atmosphere, ruin what we have."
Yet that victory brought a surprising counterattack from the developer, San Diego businessman Irving Okovita: In November, Marina Point Development Associates, in which Okovita is a partner, sued Steers, along with Gene Zimmerman, supervisor of the San Bernardino National Forest, and Scott and Robin Eliason, also Forest Service employees. The developers claim the four engaged in a criminal conspiracy to stop his project, and sued under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a statute originally written to help the government bring down the Mafia. The 1970 law makes it illegal to acquire or operate a business through racketeering activities, such as loan sharking, mail fraud, or extortion.
The developers allege that the Eliasons, who are also members of Friends of Fawnskin, used their official positions with the Forest Service to secretly rally opposition to the lakefront condo project. If the case goes to trial, says Andy Stahl, executive director of the watchdog group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, it could have strong implications for the free-speech rights of federal employees. Whether advocating on their own time or speaking up on the job, federal employees might "come to think there are risks in doing so," he says.
Upholding the First Amendment
One point of contention is the Forest Service’s assessment of endangered bald eagles in the area. Robin Eliason, a wildlife biologist, wrote the assessment in 2002 as part of a settlement of a previous lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity. It showed that bald eagles depend on a stand of pine trees at the Marina Point property for winter habitat. Okovita sought to cut down 338 of those trees for his project.
The suit claims Eliason’s report — one of several used by Friends of Fawnskin and the Center to convince the judge to halt construction — was not an official Forest Service document because it was not signed by her superiors. The developers’ attorney, S. Wayne Rosenbaum of San Diego, calls it a "personal document" used by the group to tilt the scales of justice. And the Eliasons, he says, aided by Zimmerman, abused their Forest Service connections to overstate the report’s importance.
The developers also allege that the Eliasons illegally used government computers and resources to fight Marina Point, and hoped to increase their own property value by doing so. "It is a criminal act for a federal employee to engage in private consulting as it concerns a project in which their opinions are also being sought in their federal employee capacity," says Rosenbaum.
The Eliasons declined to comment, and Zimmerman did not return phone calls. But Frank Fraley is the Los Angeles attorney who originally represented Zimmerman and the Eliasons — since the U.S. Department of Justice waited a month before agreeing to represent the three Forest Service employees. Fraley says that Rosenbaum’s description of the eagle report "indicates an incredible ignorance of land law. We believe the case is completely frivolous." In January, the Forest Service employees were removed as defendants, with the federal government substituting itself as defendant. This is commonplace when a federal employee is sued over workplace events, but the developers may seek to have the three individuals reinstated.
According to Stahl, federal ethics policies restrict an employee’s personal conduct only when there is a financial conflict of interest. "These three federal employees have a right to speak freely on the effect this marina might have on the bald eagle," he says.
Racketeering or double standard?
Sandy Steers, the only individual still named in the suit, is represented by the Oakland-based nonprofit First Amendment Project. The group’s executive director, David Greene, says the lawsuit amounts to intimidation. "The intent isn’t to win the lawsuit; it’s really just to harass and to tell other people, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you,’ " he says. "Everything Sandy did was an example of her First Amendment right to criticize her government."
Almost lost in the legal wrangling is the status of the bald eagle itself. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to delist the eagle as an endangered species, but annual surveys by the Forest Service show that the average number of eagles seen in the Big Bear Lake region fell from 27 to 14 over the last two decades. Many once gathered on the lake’s south shore, but rapid resort development in the town of Big Bear Lake may be driving the eagles north toward Fawnskin, just as it did Sandy Steers.
"For the most part, the community has gotten stronger and become even more determined than before," says Steers. During the town’s annual Doo Dah Parade, one entry last summer featured an effigy of Irving Okovita. "People aren’t going to come in here and walk all over us."
If nothing else, the case has inspired some head-scratching about conflicts that may exist throughout the Forest Service — and about where the boundaries ought to lie between federal employees and other organizations. Stahl notes that many Forest Service employees have close ties to the timber industry. Tom Thompson, a deputy chief of the Forest Service, for example, served simultaneously for a time as a board member of the Society of American Foresters, a group of forestry professionals that critics say often acts as a voice of the logging industry.
"I think there’s a double standard here," says Karen Schambach, California coordinator of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "When it’s an affiliation of Forest Service employees with timber organizations, nobody ever seems to sue them."
The author writes from Sacramento, California.
This story was made possible by the support of the EMA Foundation.
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics Executive Director Andy Stahl, 541-484-2692, www.fseee.org
S. Wayne Rosenbaum attorney for Marina Point Development Associates, 619-685-6413