Act would require disclosure of settlement amounts
By TIM HEARDEN
A beef industry group and public-lands advocates are supporting a bill in Congress that seeks to add transparency in federal judgments paid to plaintiffs in environmental and other lawsuits.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Public Lands Council are backing the Judgment Fund Transparency Act, which would require the U.S. Treasury Department to report to Congress on payments from its Judgment Fund.
Established in 1956, the fund is used to pay court judgments and settlements in cases brought against the federal government, if those costs are not otherwise covered by agencies' budgets.
Farm advocates have long complained that environmental and other groups use money won in judgments to fund further lawsuits in an effort to curtail agricultural practices.
"Without any transparency in reporting, how will Congress or the public know who is benefiting from the payments?" said Dustin Van Liew, the PLC's executive director and NCBA's federal lands director.
"It's not going to change the fact that ... radical environmental entities are able to prevail against the federal government," Van Liew said. "I do believe we'll see a fairly substantial drop in lawsuits or claims for fees to be recouped, just based on the fact that light has been shed on it. Taxpayers and the public can see who is exploiting this tax fund for their own benefit."
The bill comes as a congressional investigation last year found that the USDA and the Interior Department didn't know how much they spent on attorney fee compensation in environmental lawsuits and other litigation.
Neither federal agency had fully tracked plaintiffs who sought and received such compensation between 2000 and 2010, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Livestock producers have called on Congress to reform the 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows plaintiffs to recover attorney fees and other costs when they successfully sue the federal government.
The PLC and NCBA lament that the Treasury has no reporting requirements or accountability to Congress or taxpayers, despite having paid out more than $5 billion over the last three years.
The transparency legislation introduced Jan. 18 by Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., would require the Treasury Department to issue a public report describing funds allocated, a brief description of facts surrounding the agency request and an identification of the recipient of those funds, according to a news release.
A similar bill introduced in 2011 by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., died in committee.
National Cattlemen's Beef Association: http://www.beefusa.org/
Public Lands Council: http://www.publiclandscouncil.org/