Sunday, September 11, 2011

Extortion Funds Enviro Left Through Taxpayer Settlements

I’d never heard of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) until five years ago. Likewise, I’d never given environmental groups much thought. Like most Americans, I knew groups like the Sierra Club existed and I assumed they did nature hikes or watched birds—or something.
When I accepted a position at the organization I now head up, my eyes were opened and my view changed.
I met Jim Chilton, a rancher and a businessman. He served on the board. His story was one of the first articles I ever wrote.
Jim Chilton is a fifth generation rancher—a cowboy. His ranch includes a grazing permit for 21,500 acres of Federal Forest Service lands south of Tucson, AZ. In 2002, when the USFS renewed his permit for another ten years, CBD went on the attack. The group published a news release and photographs online, alleging that Chilton was mismanaging his allotment.  This was not Chilton’s first altercation with CBD. He’d been a victim of previous unfounded attacks and allegations and was not surprised when they refused to take down the libelous and defamatory post and photos.
As a “cowboy,” Chilton says, “You stand up and fight for truth, justice, integrity, and honor.”
In June of 2003, Chilton filed suit against the CBD. With numerous rulings back and forth, a decision was reached in January 2005 that awarded $600,000 in favor of Chilton in a defamation lawsuit—allowing him to recoup a portion of monies spent in the battle.
CBD had distorted the facts and claimed photos were from the Chilton ranch—when in fact they were not. Referencing the CBD, the jury foreman said: “They acted irresponsibly, and they should have tried to work it out instead of wasting everybody’s time.” In May 2005, CBD asked the judge to throw out the verdict. Finally, on December 6, 2006, an Arizona District Court of Appeals upheld the decision in favor of Chilton—validating the rulings of the lower court.
Addressing the experience, Chilton says, “They lie and distort. They are not on the side of truth. The jury agreed because they voted 10 to 0 that the CBD had defamed me intentionally and with malice.”
The CBD has a record of winning lawsuits, however.
Faced with their record, Chilton viewed them as a “school-yard bully.” The CBD financial records indicate that a substantial portion of their operating costs comes from settlements with the Federal Government. A Government Accountability Office report released on August 31 affirms that environmental groups profit from millions of taxpayer dollars gained through litigation.
CBD has recently beefed up its coffers using federal funds—which ultimately come from the taxpayer. This time the attack was not against a rancher, but against a renewable energy project: BrightSource Energy’s enormous, $2 billion, utility-scale solar project. In February of 2010, BrightSource received $1.37 billion in loan guarantees from the US Department of Energy for the project near the California/Nevada border. Saying the BrightSource project would eliminate tortoise habitat, environmental groups have objected to its location and filed lawsuits to prevent it from going forward. CBD threatened to sue BrightSource. Unlike Chilton, BrightSource settled—believing that the bad press could have a “material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations.”
BrightSource’s Media department told me that the specifics of the agreement are confidential, so we do not know how much the settlement was, and, in fact, little news can be found on the deal, but we can assume that a tidy sum was involved to get CBD to walk away from their preferred litigation posture. An AP article on the subject quotes Richard Frank, head of the University of California  Davis Law School’s California Law and Policy Center: “I do believe a number of environmental groups have gotten more savvy and politically sophisticated and have become less ideological and are interested in getting the best deal they can.” Was it ever really about the tortoises?
“The act of securing money, favors, etc. by intimidation” is the definition of extortion. No wonder BrightSource won’t talk about it.
This group of lawyers with a history of questionable tactics such as distortion and extortion is who pushed for the Endangered Species Act listing of the sand dune lizard. When a group of scientists investigated the science behind the listing proposal, CBD could not defend the science so they aimed for distraction—calling the release of the report a “public relations stunt, not a science review.”
In the CBD press release titled “New Mexico Politician Leads Farce ‘science’ Panel on Endangered Species Act Protection for Rare Lizard,” they do not take the report’s accusations apart one-by-one, instead they attack the messengers—specifically NM State Rep. Dennis Kintigh and Congressman Steve Pearce (both vocal opponents of the lizard listing). Jay Lininger, the only ecologist on a staff weighted with attorneys, accused Kintigh and Pearce of making “outlandish claims,” but fails to delineate and prove wrong the specifics of the report. Instead, Lininger makes a sweeping statement claiming that, “the decision to list should be based on science, not baseless rhetoric”—which is exactly why Kintigh led an investigation into the science. Lininger does reference the group’s own “study” to debunk the elected officials’ claims that the ESA listing would be detrimental to the region’s economy.
Instead of blindly believing environmental groups positions, the public needs to look for distortion, extortion, and distraction. As the GAO report found, massive amounts of taxpayer monies are going to these groups through litigation and settlements—leaving one to wonder if it was every really about the critters. Are they really law firms masquerading as zoological societies?

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