If you want to make money, suing the federal government under the guise of air, water or species protection will likely bring in big bucks. That’s essentially what a General Accounting Office report indicates. Environmental groups have been bolstering their finances by collecting $44.4 million from taxpayers between 2001 and 2010.
The route to the money is actually the reimbursement of attorney fees that falls under a little-known law called the Equal Access to Justice Act. And, while $44.4 million doesn’t seem like much out of the trillions of dollars in the federal budget (if there was a federal budget) there undoubtedly is millions more paid out the government can’t trace.
According to a GAO review of 525 legal-fee reimbursement cases, some stunning findings have been revealed. For example, only 10 of 75 agencies in either the Department of the Interior or the Department of Agriculture could even provide needed data on the fees reimbursed to attorneys. The other 65? Zilch!
“As a result,” the GAO reports says, “there was no way to readily determine who made claims, the total amount each department paid or awarded in attorney fees, who received the payments or statutes under which the cases were brought for the claims (for fiscal years 2000 through 2010).”
How does this money-maker work? The Equal Access to Justice Act was signed into law in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. The intent of the law was to help the “little guy” by awarding legal fees if he successfully showed a government agency had wronged him. But enterprising lawyers for environmental groups saw the act also covered non-profits (501(c)(3). Bingo! According to a report by Fox News.com, these lawyers are getting as much as $750 an hour, all reimbursed by the taxpayers.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso pulls no punches in addressing the law: “It was intended for helping our nation's veterans, seniors and small-business owners, but environmental groups have hijacked the so-called Equal Access to Justice Act and abused it to fund their own agenda,” he told FoxNews.com’s Joshua Rhett Miller. “Then you have small businesses and the American taxpayers left to foot the bill.”
Sen. Barrasso and Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis have jointly introduced the Government Litigation Savings Act in their respective chambers (S.1061 and H.R. 1996). It would reform the Equal Access to Justice Act by capping reimbursements at $200 per hour. It would also limit repetitive lawsuits and require full accounting of payments authorized by the equal access law.
According to Rep. Lummis, the government stopped tracking these reimbursement payments in 1995, making it “a dream come true for radical environmental groups.” Their bill is intended to stop the abuse of the system, notably, by environmental groups, she explains. The Senate bill has 12 co-sponsors while Rep. Lummis’ bill has 17 in the House. Both bills are in their respective chamber’s judiciary committees.
Environmental groups reportedly claim their lawsuits against the government are not a money-maker but only intended to “make the world a better place.” They only get reimbursed if they win the case.
So, judge the motive for yourself. As for me, I think its all about the money and that makes passing reforms like the Government Litigation Savings Act long overdue.