In an unusual move, the California attorney general's office has asked a San Diego developer to drop a federal racketeering lawsuit that accuses three U.S. Forest Service employees and an environmental activist of conspiring to block a proposed luxury condominium development on Big Bear Lake.
The suit is an example of an improper use of the courts "by powerful interests against private citizens to suppress legitimate 1st Amendment activity," Deputy Atty. Gen. Harrison Pollak of the office's environmental unit said in a letter to the developer.
A dozen years ago, California passed a law to combat what legislators saw as efforts by companies to intimidate individuals who got involved in public debates. The sponsor, then a state senator, was Bill Lockyer, now the state attorney general.
Pollak said he believed the current case marked only the second time since the passage of the law that the attorney general's office has gotten involved in this way in a federal case.
The suit, filed by developer Irving Okovita, alleges that the Forest Service workers used a small environmental group, the Friends of Fawnskin, as a "racketeering enterprise" to block the development.
The workers and their supporters accuse Okovita of using the racketeering law to retaliate against them.
The suit was filed after U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin issued a preliminary injunction against the proposed Marina Point development.
The proposed project would have 132 luxury condominiums, a 175-slip marina and tennis courts. It would be built on 12.5 acres on Grout Bay on the north shore of Big Bear Lake, near the tiny town of Fawnskin.
Plans for the development call for 338 trees to be cut down. The area is known locally as Cluster Pines because of its dense stands of trees.
Bald eagles, which are on the federal endangered species list, spend winters in the area, perching in pine trees and swooping down to the lake to feed on fish.
Okovita alleges that the defendants "bombarded" local, state and federal agencies with false information about the development in order to "saddle" the project with "onerous regulatory costs and burdens."
Pollak's letter counters that "the gist" of the lawsuit is that the environmental group "held meetings in order to organize opposition to the development project, provided reports concerning the project's effects on the environment, and generally expressed their views and provided information to the government about the proposed development project. The 1st Amendment protects such petitioning activity."
"It is inappropriate to threaten citizens of California with overwhelming damages claims based on the exercise of their 1st Amendment right," Pollak said.
If Okovita does not drop the lawsuit, the attorney general's office says it will file a friend-of-the-court brief urging the federal judge considering the case to dismiss it.
Okovita's attorney, S. Wayne Rosenbaum of San Diego, said Thursday that he and his client have no intention of dropping the suit.
"We are not saying that these individuals don't have the right to petition the government at any time they see fit," he said. "We are saying you do not have a protected 1st Amendment right to commit criminal acts."