Western caucus urges judgment fund accountability

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

Members of Congress are calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to make public how much money is paid to environmental groups that sue the government under the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws.

The money is provided under the Equal Access to Justice Act.

Twenty-one members of the Congressional Western Caucus signed a letter to Attorney Generic Eric Holder asking the department to explain how the department tracks Equal Access to Justice Act disbursements.

"If no such tracking exists, we encourage DOJ to create a central, searchable EAJA database," the caucus said in the letter.

The request came from 18 Western representatives and three senators.

On Oct. 16 the Capital Press reported the federal government paid $4.7 billion to environmental groups during a five-year period. The statistics, compiled by Wyoming lawyer Karen Budd-Falen, reflect only a portion of the payments, Budd-Falen told the Capital Press. The actual amount may be far greater, she said.

"I think we only found that the iceberg exists," she said. "I don't think we have any idea how much money is being spent. But I think it's huge."

When an environmental lawsuit is settled or a judgment reached, the plaintiffs receive money for expenses under the Judgment Fund, which pays settlements in lawsuits against the federal government, and the Equal Access to Justice Act.

The equal access law was created so individuals, small businesses or public interest groups with a limited financial capacity could seek judicial redress from unreasonable government actions.

"Unfortunately," the caucus wrote, "we are concerned the lack of government oversight of EAJA payments has allowed some groups to circumvent congressional intent with respect to this law."

In the letter dated Nov. 2, the caucus noted the equal access law originally provided for two annual reports to Congress -- one by the Administrative Conference of the U.S. on agency-awarded payments and the other by the attorney general on court-awarded payments.

However, in 1995, Congress defunded the administrative conference and repealed the attorney general's reporting requirement, the letter noted.

"We urge the creation of a database to bring transparency and accountability to these public interest groups," the caucus wrote.

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