"Green fees"

 

Conservative groups have often accused environmentalists of being lawsuit-happy, and of making big bucks off their court cases. Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen took that claim even further this fall, asserting that green groups who win or settle federal suits get billions of taxpayer dollars to cover their legal fees -- and that many of them then use that money to file even more lawsuits (see our profile of Budd-Falen in our 2007 story "Rebels with a lost cause"). The story got a lot of play and even made the New York Times.

Now, reporter Philip White of Wyofile.com has dug into Budd-Falen's charges. "Green Fees: Cheyenne Lawyer's Crusade on U.S. Legal Payments" contains a thorough investigation of the legal fees the feds have paid to environmental groups who win their cases:

Attorneys from the environmental groups say Budd-Falen’s calculations are wildly inaccurate, deceitful and defamatory.  An analysis by WyoFile indicates that Budd-Falen’s research contains no support for her assertion that these fee payments are anywhere near “billions”.

Later in the article, White explains the legal underpinnings:

The Equal Access to Justice Act, which is the focus of Budd-Falen’s work, was passed by Congress to give citizens a tool to lessen the risk of challenging the power of the federal government by allowing them to recoup attorneys’ fees when they prevail – and also meet several other requirements that federal judges have broad discretion to apply. ...

WyoFile’s calculations show that the average attorneys’ fees award in each of the 1,596 cases Budd-Falen counted in her September report would have had to be $1.25 million to reach “billions” (i.e., at least $2 billion).  In a later report, Budd-Falen raised her count to 2,875 suits involving environmental groups.  Even using that number, the average award would have had to be nearly $700,000 to reach “billions.”  Budd-Falen did not respond to WyoFile requests for documentation of her “billions” assertion.  Even the Western Legacy Alliance, in a November press release, characterized Budd-Falen’s report as substantiating “nearly $10 million in payouts.”

According to White, Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R) now plans to introduce a bill that would force federal agencies to report the recipients of such lawsuit fees and the amounts. More transparency in government is a good thing, but the premise, in this case, seems flawed.

“Budd-Falen represents economic interests who would prefer that our environmental laws were not enforced,” (John) Kostyack (of the National Wildlife Federation) said. “Congress passed these laws with the idea that water would be kept clean and that wildlife would be protected and they recognized that citizen enforcement might be necessary to make that happen.”

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