Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Equal Access to Justice Act


Tubbs ranch near Malad, Putnam photo
Western Caucus to Bring Attention to EAJA Abuse

MORELAND--In an open letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, dated November 2, 2009, members of the Congressional Western Caucus expressed great concern to Attorney General Holder regarding the ongoing and apparent abuse of the Equal Access to Justice Act by certain organizations including environmental and special interest groups.

The Caucus highlights the complete lack of oversight, accountability, and transparency in the overall process and allocation of funds under EAJA, which appears to have contributed to the egregious abuse.

“Environmental groups have been working to deny grazing rights to America’s ranchers for decades. They do so by claiming violations of environmental policy, suing federal environmental agencies and ultimately, tying up ranchers’ time and resources in costly, and often baseless, court battles,” said Jeff Faulkner, Western Legacy Alliance (WLA) member. “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.”

Two of the federal programs that are seemingly handing out millions, and possibly billions, to environmental groups are the EAJA and the Judgment Fund.

The EAJA was established approximately 30 years ago by Congress to ensure that individuals, small businesses and/or public interest groups with limited financial capacity could seek judicial redress from unreasonable government actions that threatened their rights, privileges or interests. EAJA accomplishes this by allowing small businesses and individuals who would otherwise not be able to afford a court battle to obtain reimbursement of attorney’s fees if they are found to prevail in a case over a government agency such as the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service.

When the law was first enacted, federal agencies were required to report annually on EAJA applications and the amount of attorney fees each agency awarded to groups and individuals. However, that reporting requirement ended in 1995 due to 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.

“Our research shows that in the past 10 years, 1,500 cases have been filed by environmental groups against federal agencies. Since there is no accountability or specific reporting, it is unclear how many millions or billions have been paid out. We can find nearly 10 million in payouts, but that appears to be just a glimpse of the problem,” added Faulkner.

According the U.S. Department of the Treasury website, the Judgment Fund, which was created in the 1960’s, “…is available for most court judgments and Justice Department compromise settlements of actual or imminent lawsuits against the government. Congress has added a number of administrative claim awards (settlements by agencies at the administrative level, without a lawsuit). The Judgment Fund has no fiscal year limitations, and there is no need for Congress to appropriate funds to it annually or otherwise. Moreover, disbursements from it are not attributed to or accounted for by the agencies whose activities give rise to awards paid. Absent a specific statutory requirement, the agency responsible is not required to reimburse the Judgment Fund.”

Since 2003, the Judgment Fund has paid out $4.7 billion in judgments, including the reimbursement of attorney’s fees. It appears environmental groups have accessed millions of taxpayer dollars from this fund; however, the Web site reporting these payments does not indicate to whom the payments were made or for what purpose. Additional investigation reveals that the same environmental groups benefiting from EAJA payments are accessing the Judgment Fund to millions of dollars each year.

“WLA commends Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis for spearheading this effort within the Western Caucus and is encouraged that the members have been quick to address it. Since its inception, the WLA has been working on identifying the true extent of the EAJA abuse and other federal funds,” continued Faulkner. “It is becoming more and more obvious that the extent of the abuse and exploitation is far-reaching and down-right astounding.”

The WLA is working to highlight these problems and educate the public and the nation’s elected officials while demanding prompt action to ensure appropriate use and reporting of taxpayer dollars from federal programs.

In addition, the Western Caucus has requested that the DOJ respond “with an explanation regarding how the Department tracks EAJA disbursements, and if no such tracking exists, the Caucus requests that the DOJ create a central, searchable EAJA database.” The Caucus believes that “a central database under the DOJ auspices would be the most transparent and efficient means of bringing EAJA back into the sunshine.”

The Western Caucus is comprised of members of Congress committed to protecting the interests and ideals of the West. More information on the Caucus can be found at: http://robbishop.house.gov/WesternCaucus/.

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