Justice Dept. Won't Defend Forest Workers

Three highly decorated U.S. Forest Service workers have been sued by a San Diego businessman under the civil RICO Act (known as the Racketeering Act) for trying to block a luxury condo development and the Justice Department has left them to fend for themselves.

Okovita sued under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a statute originally passed in 1970 to strengthen the government's arsenal against mobsters and drug lords. As time has passed, the law has been used against a variety of individuals and groups. Legal experts, however, said they believed this was the first time the law had been targeted at Forest Service employees.

The three Forest Service employees and Steers said the charges against them are patently false. The government workers maintain that they were acting in their official capacity as Forest Service employees and have done nothing wrong. Steers said Okovita's suit was brought partly "to intimidate other activists from speaking out. That won't work," she said.

Despite a recommendation by the Agriculture Department and notwithstanding that it is customary for DOJ to represent agency employees accused of wrongdoing, the Justice Department has not provide lawyers for the three workers. One of the workers, Robin Eliason, is a renowned expert on bald eagles.

Okovita's project came to a halt last May when a federal judge in Riverside issued a preliminary injunction saying that two activist groups, Friends of Fawnskin and the Center for Biological Diversity, had demonstrated that the development had "the potential to both harass and harm the bald eagle," which is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The plaintiffs have shown that "a violation of the Endangered Species Act is at least likely in the future," U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin said in a written ruling.

Frank Fraley, a Los Angeles lawyer representing the Forest Service employees, said the suit against his clients was filed in retaliation.

According to another lawyer for one of the sued workers:

...the RICO case [is] "a classic SLAPP [Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation] suit. It has been filed to retaliate against people who had the good sense and strength to stand up for what they believe and to punish them for taking advantage of their constitutional rights."

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