The legal might of the U.S. government is usually enough to roll right over someone like Opelousas, La. plant manager Hubert Vidrine Jr. But last week the underdog had his day: a federal court awarded Vidrine $1.7 million for having been maliciously prosecuted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Our friends at the Washington Legal Foundation, who helped represent Vidrine, give details:
The just-resolved case started in 1996 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered its SWAT-like special operations team (equipped with M-16 rifles and police dogs) to raid the Canal Refinery, Mr. Vidrine’s workplace. The raid led to a criminal investigation against Mr. Vidrine for allegedly unlawful storage and disposal of hazardous wastes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
When it discovered that evidence of the alleged offense was lacking, the feds refused to back off and in fact redoubled their zeal. In a scathing 142-page ruling, Judge Rebecca Doherty wrote that federal prosecutor Keith Phillips "set out with intent and reckless and callous disregard for anyone’s rights other than his own, and reckless disregard for the processes and power which had been bestowed on him, to effectively destroy another man’s life."
A Greenwire dispatch published in the New York Times is at pains to present the Vidrine case (quoting a former enforcement official) an "isolated situation" arising from the actions of a "rogue" agent. As a local paper reported, "Phillips was accused of targeting Vidrine because of his outspokenness and choosing an investigation in Louisiana to be close to a woman with whom he was having a sexual affair." The second of these motives, at least, presumably doesn't figure very often in decisions to pursue federal criminal charges.
Cato readers have reason to be less than surprised when federal enforcers abuse their powers, especially at an agency as convinced of its own righteousness as the EPA. Nine years ago, Cato published James V. DeLong's "Out of Bounds, Out of Control: Regulatory Enforcement at the EPA." In 2009 congressional testimony, Cato's Tim Lynch discussed troubling cases like that of Alaska railroad employee Edward Hanousek ("prosecuted under the Clean Water Act even though he was off duty and at home when the accident occurred").
Yesterday, incidentally, brought another setback in court for the EPA: a federal judge slapped it down for flagrantly overstepping its legal charter by usurping the Army Corps of Engineers's statutory role as part of its efforts to restrict coal mining in Appalachia. How many times do the agency and its enforcers have to overstep their authority before those incidents cease to be just "isolated situation[s]"?