San Diego businessman Irving Okovita, whose attempt to build luxury condos in a bald eagle habitat near Big Bear has been blocked by a federal judge, wants the court to reconsider. But as he pursued that request, he must also have sensed something in the air, something emboldening in the way the Bush administration is eroding environmental protections. Okovita went to court and accused three U.S. Forest Service employees of engaging in a criminal conspiracy to block his Marina Point development at Big Bear Lake.
Okovita's lawsuit, under a 1970 law designed to help prosecute mobsters, has the feel of using a howitzer to shoot deer. But the government, instead of jumping to offer legal counsel to its employees, has so far offered nothing, inexcusably leaving these civil servants on their own.
Four years ago, as part of a management plan for the San Bernardino National Forest, bald eagle expert Robin Eliason and her botanist husband, Scott, wrote that the dense pine stands at issue were an important wintering perch for bald eagles. Okovita wants to chop down 338 of these trees. Two groups that sued to stop Okovita cited this 2000 federal report, among others, as evidence that the development, with 132 condominiums, a marina and tennis courts on land surrounded by federal forest, would cause irreparable environmental harm.
Last May, a Riverside federal judge blocked construction, in part because of the eagle reports. Marina Point, the judge ruled, had "the potential to both harass and harm the bald eagle," probably violating the federal Endangered Species Act.
On Nov. 3 Okovita sued, accusing the Eliasons of giving false information in the 2000 report and of using their federal computers to communicate with opponents of the project, thereby engaging in wire and mail fraud. His suit charges that their supervisor, Gene Zimmerman, "knowingly agreed to facilitate this scheme."
The Forest Service's parent agency quickly asked the Justice Department to represent its employees, as it typically does. But the department has only assigned a lawyer to write a memo on whether the government should defend these employees. Meanwhile, the Eliasons and Zimmerman face multimillion-dollar judgments if they lose. With a first hearing as early as next month, they have retained a private lawyer at their own expense.
Okovita's lawsuit would be laughable if it didn't seem to fit a larger hostility to the environment. President Bush has reversed or weakened regulations protecting air, water, forests and other resources and starved enforcement agencies. Leaving passionate (and not very well paid) public employees at the mercy of wealthy developers might even fit with the plan. But in the slowest news days of the year, abutting the most generous holiday, the timing at least guarantees a bounty of critical comment. Like this editorial.