Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Editorial: Forest Service racketeering alleged

....Enter San Diego businessman Irving Okovita, who in 1981 bought 12 acres on the north shore of Big Bear Lake, east of San Bernardino -- formerly the site of a trailer camp. Last year, he announced plans to cut down 338 trees and build 132 condominiums and a 175-slip marina.

But the project came to a screeching halt in May, when a federal judge found two activist groups, Friends of Fawnskin and the Center for Biological Diversity, had demonstrated the development had "the potential to both harass and harm the bald eagles," which winter in the area.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin briefly cited a report on the eagles written by Forest Service employee Robin Eliason, who coincidentally is a member of the activist group "Friends of Fawnskin" and who -- with her husband and fellow Forest Service employee, Scott -- owns a home nearby.

Now, Mr. Okovita has filed a lawsuit against the Eliasons and their boss, contending the government workers used their positions "under color of law" to advance their personal and political agendas.

Mr. Okovita's attorney argues the defendants wanted to kill the project because doing so "would serve to increase their own property values." The suit alleges Scott Eliason improperly advised Friends of Fawnskin on ways the project might be derailed, and that Robin Eliason prepared an inaccurate report on the bald eagle as part of that alleged conspiracy.

The defendants argue they were only doing their jobs.

"Government employees, just like private citizens, can join the Boy Scouts, ... Sierra Club, National Rifle Association, or Friends of Fawnskin," argues Andy Stahl, director of a Forest Service employees group.

Yes, but is it proper for them to use the power of their government offices -- and inside information gained there -- to thwart Mr. Okovita in the exercise of his property rights, while furthering their own agendas or quasi-religious environmental beliefs?....

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