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Northwest boundary dispute sparks firing

An official battling a couple's 4-foot wall is now fighting for his job.

July 15, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — In the increasingly curious legal battle over a 4-foot-high retaining wall along the U.S.-Canada border, the retired owners -- Herbert and Shirley-Ann Leu of Blaine, Wash. -- appear to have won the first round.

The head of the agency attempting to tear down the wall was fired last week by President Bush. Dennis Schornack, however, is fighting his termination in federal court, arguing that the White House has no firing authority over the agency.

"I'm sorry a guy has to lose his job over something like this," said Herbert Leu, a 69-year-old retired electrician. "It wasn't our intention. We just wanted a little wall so our backyard wouldn't fall into the ditch."

The Leus' property backs up to the edge of the border, which is marked by a drainage ditch that runs along a rural road. Canada lies just north of the ditch, a short hop from the edge of the Leus' backyard.

The couple built the wall, which stretches 85 feet and cost $15,000, in November after obtaining the necessary city permits. The structure, part of a larger plan to develop the quarter-acre lot, fell well-within their property line.

But the International Boundary Commission informed the Leus that the wall encroached 30 inches into the "boundary vista" -- a 20-foot swath that runs the entire length of the border, 10 feet on each side. The commission, responsible for keeping the boundary vista clear, ordered the Leus to tear down their wall.

In a hand-delivered letter, Schornack wrote that if the Leus didn't comply, "the commission may itself cause the wall to be removed and the expenses for the removal will be invoiced by you."

The agency was established in 1925 by a little-known treaty between the United States and Canada for the purpose of maintaining the boundary from both sides. The IBC is composed of a commissioner and small staff in each country. The main job entails hiring work crews to cut down shrubs and trees growing along the 5,525-mile dividing line, the longest undefended boundary in the world.

Blaine is at the northern terminus of Interstate 5, the third-busiest checkpoint on the U.S.-Canada border. East of the checkpoint, on the outskirts of town, is the small neighborhood surrounded by woods where the Leus live. It is a mixed collection of old and new houses, old and young residents, and vacant lots still to be developed.

The Leus, like the Blaine officials who approved the wall, had never heard of the IBC. In April, the couple sued the agency.

Schornack, unhappy with the way government lawyers were handling the Leus' case, retained his own attorneys to work with the Department of Justice.

In documents filed in federal district court in Seattle shortly after he was fired, Schornack wrote that a White House representative reminded him that he "served at the pleasure of the president, and the president's pleasure may run out."

The White House representative then "went on to tell me what he wanted: for me to fire my lawyers and do whatever the Department of Justice instructed as to this case," Schornack wrote. Schornack refused to fire his lawyers.

Early Tuesday, the White House fired him by fax.

The president named David Bernhardt, solicitor for the Department, to act as U.S. commissioner for the IBC until a permanent replacement could be found, according to Deputy Commissioner Kyle Hipsley.

Neither the White House nor the Justice Department would comment.

In his court motion, Schornack said the IBC was a binational entity independent of the U.S. government, and that the president had no authority to remove a commissioner. Schornack said the treaty made it clear that a vacancy could be created only if a commissioner died, resigned or became disabled.

Schornack, appointed by Bush in 2002, said he had "done nothing wrong" and had "served honorably."

"I think we're talking about someone with an inflated view of his power," said Brian Hodges, attorney for the Leus. Hodges belongs to the nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation, which advocates for private-property rights. The Leus' case, Hodges said, was becoming stranger than fiction.

"The White House? The Department of Justice?" Hodges said. "We're talking about a 4-foot wall. We're talking about a retired couple who just want to enjoy their home. This doesn't equate to a constitutional crisis."

tomas.alex.tizon@latimes.com

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Researcher Lynn Marshall contributed to this report.

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