They file suits; you pay
Posted on: 3.6.2010 11:26:43 AM
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By SALLY SCHUFF
I bet you didn't know that taxpayers often foot the bill for the legal
fees when major activist organizations successfully bring lawsuits
against the federal government.
Millions of tax dollars have gone to big groups like Sierra Club, the
Natural Resources Defense Council and The Humane Society of the United
This tax-funded generosity came as news to me last week, and all because
three members of Congress teamed up to make it public. They are
sponsoring a bill to bring oversight and full public disclosure of
payments made under the 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) -
something that apparently hasn't happened for the past 15 years.
"It's time to shine some light on the hijacking of the equal justice law
by some groups and the environmental litigation industry that supports
their 'stop everything' agenda," said Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.),
who is particularly concerned about the lawsuits' impact on public land
She is joined by Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D., S.D.) and Rob
Bishop (R., Utah) in a bipartisan attempt to bring the payments into the
open. They are underpinning their effort with two new studies that
analyze which organizations received payments and how open the reporting
system was - or, more accurately, wasn't.
Lummis called on environmental organizations that have benefited from
the payments to support the transparency.
When Congress passed EAJA in 1980, it was supposed to "help individuals,
small businesses and nonprofits with limited means seek judicial redress
against the federal government," the three sponsors explained in a joint
statement. Those who won their cases or prevailed in out-of-court
settlements could seek repayment of legal fees.
However, the new studies -- one by a Wyoming law firm and one by
Virginia Tech University - show that major environmental groups have
been the chief beneficiaries.
The Wyoming study found that "14 environmental groups have brought more
than 1,200 federal cases in 19 states and the District of Columbia and
have collected more than $37 million in taxpayer dollars through EAJA or
other similar laws," the statement reported. The data do not include
settlements or fees sealed from public view.
The study, which Feedstuffs obtained, showed that the payments were
sometimes reported in public documents, but often they were not.
"For too long, taxpayers have unwittingly served as the financiers of
the environmental litigation industry. Without improved oversight, EAJA
will continue to be abused by organizations that have made a cottage
industry out of suing the federal government in an effort to advance
their radical political agendas," Bishop said.
The bill, H.R. 4717, would "reinstate and consolidate tracking and
reporting requirements under the Department of Justice and would require
DOJ to publish an online, searchable database of EAJA payments that is
open to the public. It would also authorize an audit of the last 15
years when EAJA operated with absolutely no oversight," the announcement
The Virginia Tech study, which surveyed five federal agencies using
Freedom of Information Act requests, closely jived with the Wyoming
study, the sponsors noted, and the depth of the disclosure problem was
confirmed when the study found that two of the queried agencies "could
provide absolutely no data on EAJA payments."
The lawmakers listed several groups, particularly those whose members
use public lands, as supporters of the legislation -- the National
Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA) and Public Lands Council among them.
"Because the government has neglected to provide oversight, EAJA has
become a breeding ground for abuse by radical environmental groups,"
NCBA president Steve Foglesong said in a statement. "The fact that
millions of dollars in taxpayer funds have been awarded with virtually
no accounting of who received the payments is unacceptable."