In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, members of the Congressional Western Caucus charge that environmental groups are using the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) to recover legal fees arising from lawsuits that have brought against job-creating projects on federal land.
Signed by 23 Republican senators and congressmen, the Nov. 20 letter alleges that taxpayer funds are being diverted from land management agencies to the coffers of wealthy environmental organizations. Enacted over 30 years ago, the EAJA to allow individuals, small businesses, and public interest groups with limited financial resources to seek reimbursements from the federal government for legal expenses incurred in cases brought against the government itself. While noting that many individuals and non-profits groups have used the law responsibly, the Western Caucus believes the EAJA is being abused. “Unfortunately,” they write, “we are concerned that the lack of federal oversight of EAJA payments has allowed some groups to circumvent Congressional intent with respect to this law.”
In the first years after the law’s enactment, federal agencies were required to report annually on EAJA applications and the amount of attorney fees each agency awared to groups or individuals. However, that requirement ended in 1995 with the enactment of the Federal Reports Elimination and Sunset Act. As a result, since 1998 there has been no uniform method of reviewing EAJA and there is no public accountability or transparency in the program.
“Environmental groups have been working to deny grazing rights to American ranchers for decades. They do so by claiming violations of environmental policies, suing federal environmental agencies, and, ultimately, tying up ranchers’ time and resources in costly, and often, baseless, court battles,” said Jeff Faulkner of the Idaho-based Western Legacy Alliance. “What makes this situation worse is the fact that these environmental groups such as Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity are shaking down federal government programs so they can access taxpayer dollars to fund their radical agendas.”
“There also is no question that these self-styled environmental groups are unleashing an avalanche of lawsuits against virtually every job-creating project in the West,” added Jim Sims, president of the Colorado-based Western Business Roundtable. “If tax dollars are being used to subsidize these attacks against job creation, then these groups ought to be hauled in front of Congress and made to justify their use of tax dollars in this manner.”
For their part, members of the Western Caucus requested that the Justice Department create a “central, searchable EAJA database. The database would include the organization’s name, the total amount of attorney’s fees reimbursed, and the case under which attorney’s fees were rewarded.”