A California farmer headed to court Tuesday to fight back against around $15 million in government extortion fines. The fines were levied against him in 2012 for plowing a field on his land and “deeply ripping” shallow pools which, because of the Clean Water Act, the government considered its property.
Farmer John Duarte’s nightmare began when a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager spotted a tractor in his field.
Here’s a little background from The Weekly Standard:
On a rainy afternoon in late November 2012, Matthew Kelley, a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, pulled his truck over to the side of a road in Tehama County in northern California.
He’d seen something he found disturbing: a tractor parked in an open field. Fields and tractors are common in this rural region halfway between Sacramento and the Oregon border. The area is known for its almond and walnut orchards. What Kelley found so alarming was that this tractor was in a 450-acre field that he knew contained dozens of vernal pools. These are small depressions that can fill with rainwater seasonally, but environmental regulators consider them to be part of nearby Coyote Creek.
Kelley was the Army Corps’s lone representative in Tehama County, and nobody had asked him for a permit to plow. In an email to his superiors, Kelley wrote, “I think this is going to be a big violation.”
He had no idea just how big the investigation he was launching would become. For rather than acquiesce to the Army Corps’s demands, the property owner, John Duarte, decided to fight. His decision unleashed the full fury of the government’s regulatory apparatus and resulted in a legal battle that has stretched more than four years and placed Duarte on the brink of financial ruin.
This month, after a string of victories largely vindicating the government’s legal positions, the Justice Department is heading to court to press Duarte to pay a $2.8 million fine and to buy mitigation credits his lawyers say will cost at least $13 million.
The fines against Durant threaten to ruin his family nursery business, which employs hundreds of people in Tehama County, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation. The organization, which is working to convince a judge to lower the fines, argues that the farmer’s wrongdoing was failing to beg for government permission to for an everyday farm activity.
“This is a life-or-death moment for a long-established business with hundreds of employees in the Central Valley,” said PLF Senior Attorney Tony Francois. “Federal prosecutors are asking for ruinous fines against Duarte Nursery and John Duarte personally, for plowing a field without permission from the Army Corps of Engineers. Yet we’re talking about shallow plowing that caused no harm and was done in the good faith, reasonable belief that it was entirely legal.
“If any fine is levied for what was at worst an innocent misunderstanding, it should be nominal,” Francois continued. “Instead, prosecutors and agency officials are asking for a staggering $2.8 million — plus tens of millions in payments to a wetlands bank. These incredible sums would close Duarte Nursery and put its 500-plus workers on the street.
Durant’s lawyers note that the government has the discretion to lower the fine to as little as $1 rather than impose a penalty that will ruin the agricultural business owner’s livelihood.