Judge Rejects RICO Lawsuit
In a ruling hailed by environmentalists, a federal judge on Monday threw out a racketeering lawsuit filed by a San Diego developer against a resident and three U.S. Forest Service employees for protesting a luxury condominium project at Big Bear Lake.
U.S. District Judge Manuel Real said environmental activist Sandy Steers was not a racketeer but merely had been exercising her right under the 1st Amendment “to petition the government.”
The judge also dismissed the developer’s lawsuit against the federal government on technical grounds.
“Today’s action makes it clear that [federal racketeering statutes] have no place in environmental disputes,” said Steers’ attorney, Jim Wheaton of the First Amendment Project, an Oakland-based group. “Sandy Steers was the victim of a legal mugging by some legal thugs, and this court saw right through it and put a halt to it.”
Michael McCloskey, an attorney for Marina Point Development Associates, said his client was considering an appeal.
“This is environmental activism at its worst,” McCloskey said. “The conduct they engaged in was calculated to derail a development project.”
The case had raised eyebrows in legal and law enforcement circles because the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- also known as RICO -- was originally passed in 1970 to help federal authorities crack down on mobsters and drug lords. But Marina Point’s lawsuit last year was among the first in the nation against Forest Service workers.
The legal issues also spurred the California attorney general’s office to file an unusual friend-of-the-court brief, asserting that the developer’s lawsuit was intended to intimidate and silence its critics. Such lawsuits violate a state law aimed at protecting people’s right to speak out against projects without fear of getting sued, according to the attorney general.
“The court obviously thinks [Marina Point’s lawsuit] was frivolous,” said Franklin Fraley Jr., a private attorney representing the Forest Service employees. “It would be folly for Marina Point to drag my clients back into the case.”
Though the developer’s lawsuit originally named Forest Service workers as private defendants, the United States government has since stepped in and has been substituted in place of the employees. On Monday, Real dismissed the action against the federal government on the grounds that it cannot be sued under RICO statutes.
The developer filed the lawsuit to retaliate against those who were fighting the 132-condominium project on a 12.5-acre parcel on the north shore of Big Bear Lake, environmental and 1st Amendment advocates say.
In spring 2004, the Friends of Fawnskin group won a federal injunction under the Endangered Species Act to block the development, after arguing that the project could harm the area’s bald eagle population. The project is now temporarily halted, pending a trial scheduled for May.
Marina Point filed its lawsuit in November, contending that the Forest Service workers and Steers used Friends of Fawnskin as a “racketeering enterprise” to circulate false information on bald eagles, because the individuals owned private property near the development site and didn’t want the condos to block their views of the lake.
Forest Service workers didn’t attend Monday’s hearing, but a jubilant Steers said outside the courtroom that her motives for trying to stop the project were sincere.
“I’m trying to protect eagles and the environment. I don’t have a clue whether my property value would go up or down because of the condominium development,” she said.
“I feel like it’s a victory not just for me, but for all those other groups around.... We have a right to stand up for what we believe in.”