Tables turned on Catron County leader

  • Tom Dwyer is suing Dick Manning for harassment

    Mario Villafuerte/Army Times Pub Co.
 

When it comes to the war for the West, Dick Manning - a miner, rancher and county-movement leader in Catron County, N.M. - is used to having the upper hand.

For years, Manning has frustrated and harassed federal and state employees who tried to monitor his 17-acre mining site in the Gila National Forest near the tiny mountain town of Mogollon. Manning locked them out, and when they climbed over or through his chain-link fence topped with barbed wire to do their job, he slapped them with lawsuits.

But now, for the first time since he began processing gold and silver ore at his mill site in 1978, Manning is on the defensive. Two of the three employees that he sued - Robert Salter, a New Mexico water resource specialist, and Thomas Dwyer, a U.S. Forest Service inspector - just filed their own case against him for harassment and malicious prosecution.

The case sets an important precedent, says Jeff Ruch, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys. Though the Justice Department and a few private citizens have sued rebellious counties over local ordinances that overturn federal or state laws, Ruch says this is the first time public employees have sued a county-movement leader who harassed them for enforcing the law. Also, the plaintiffs are suing for personal damages - which could mean a hefty fine for Manning.

Ruch, who works for a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says he hopes the case will encourage dozens of other federal employees throughout the West who have been subjected to threats, intimidation or assaults while doing their jobs.

If Salter and Dwyer lose, people like Manning will continue to bully public land managers, says Ruch. But if they win, litigation could prove to be the Achilles' heel of the county movement.

"We hope this lawsuit will send a message to the Dick Mannings of the world that there is a cost to this."

Miner, rancher, man of action

Dick Manning put Catron County on the map in 1990 when he helped draft a set of controversial land-use and planning ordinances that overturn state and federal law. "The idea was floating around," says Hugh McKeen, chairman of the Catron County commission. "But Manning is the main guy that takes action." Catron County's laws have since become a blueprint for other counties trying to assert local sovereignty (HCN, 2/24/92).

Manning firmly believes his unpatented Apollo Mill site in the Gila National Forest is private property, even though he agrees it sits on public land. Acting on this premise, Manning has long rebelled against federal oversight. He has continually refused to put a Forest Service lock on the mill gate or give inspectors a key.

Manning stopped operations at the site just before his right to mine expired in 1988. Robert Rothstein, the lead lawyer for Salter and Dwyer, says the Forest Service basically ignored Manning's violations before. But now that he wants to start the mill up again, the agency is requiring a new plan that will cover reclamation of previous work, plus a reclamation bond and a state discharge permit.

Manning has finally filed an application for a discharge permit, but only after his appeal of the decision failed. He also filed the criminal trespass complaints against Salter, Dwyer and another Forest Service employee, Liz Matthews, the day after the state notified him that he needed the permit.

Forest Service officials warn that the mill site could become a Superfund site if left unregulated. In 1983, regulators documented a pipe running into the creek from the mill site, and during his 1993 inspection, Robert Salter found open, unmarked drums of hazardous chemicals and poorly lined tailings ponds.

Who's harassing whom?

The courts eventually dismissed Manning's complaints against Dwyer, Salter and Matthews, but not before the cases wreaked havoc on their lives. Because New Mexico law prohibits state agencies from defending state employees in criminal cases, Salter had to pay $9,000 to defend himself for simply doing his job, says Rothstein.

Salter says Manning's lawsuit and the subsequent publicity in local newspapers have ruined the trust he once had from ranchers and miners throughout New Mexico. He's looking for other work, perhaps even out of state. "Essentially, my career is over after 20 years," he says.

As for Dwyer, his lawsuit dragged on until mid-September because Manning appealed the first court's dismissal. After Manning pressed charges, Dwyer requested a Forest Service transfer and moved to a neighboring county.

"I felt like the character in The Scarlet Letter," says Dwyer. "Like I had a big brand on my forehead."

He also admits to having a "mild anxiety about physical vengeance." Susan Schock of the local environmental group Gila Watch, says Manning has a history of aggression and thinly veiled threats. She points to a Forest Service memo describing a shouting match between the miner and an agency employee during which Manning allegedly said he'd hate to see an officer get shot accidentally by coming onto the mining site without his knowledge.

Manning's intimidation has worked on an agency level as well, says Schock. When she joined state and federal regulators and a CNN camera crew on a follow-up inspection, Manning refused to let her into the site; and the Forest Service deferred to him. The state has also barred Salter from returning to the site. Another search in June 1994 was called off because of a rumor that armed county sheriffs planned to meet inspectors at the site.

But Manning insists he's the victim, claiming that federal and state officials have singled him out because of his politics. Catron County residents almost unanimously side with Manning. Sympathizers have collected money for his legal battles and signed a petition calling for a grand jury investigation into the three employees' actions.

"The whole thing is trumped up," says Commissioner McKeen. Manning is a responsible miner, he says, adding that the Forest Service and state are persecuting him by wrongfully holding him responsible for previous pollution.

Rothstein believes Manning is crying foul to keep regulators at bay and avoid costs of compliance. "The Forest Service has bent over backwards to work with Manning," he says.

Mad enough to sue

"What's odd about these wise-use cases is that even the top managers have their hands tied," says attorney Ruch. "The Justice Department lacks an aggressive posture, so in the meantime, the agencies don't know whether any enforcement actions will be backed up."

That lack of support means that most agency employees, even if threatened or harassed, aren't willing to sue, says Ruch. Liz Matthews, for example, decided it just wasn't worth the agony. If Salter and Dwyer lose, they will have to pay legal expenses. Dwyer also worries that the publicity is bad for his career because it could mark him as a "lightning rod" for trouble within the agency.

Despite the risks and fear of retaliation, Dwyer says he became convinced he had to fight Manning in court: "I really got angry when I realized my 6-year-old son was worried I might go to jail."

Elizabeth Manning, HCN staff reporter

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