In a case worthy of daytime television, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana ordered on Friday, September 30, that the United States pay $1.7 million to Hubert P. Vidrine, a client of the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF). WLF worked closely with Mr. Vidrine’s local trial counsel, Gary Cornwell, to bring a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act for malicious prosecution. Mr. Vidrine had been pursuing his claim for the past five years after the government dropped all criminal charges on the eve of trial.
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).
Drugs and Hypnotism. When asked to prove its case, the EPA turned to its star witness, Mike Franklin, who claimed he had taken samples of the allegedly hazardous material and had conducted tests proving Mr. Vidrine’s guilt. The only problem is that neither Mr. Franklin nor the EPA could produce these tests. Whoops. With the credibility of the case already crumbling, it then came to light that Mr. Franklin suffered an addiction to cocaine, an addiction that often results in psychosis: loss of contact with reality, including false beliefs. Determined to press on, the EPA tried to prove its case by extracting truthful information from Mr. Franklin through hypnosis. But this too failed.
Personal Vendettas. Seemingly oblivious to the evidence against his case, EPA lead investigator Keith Phillips pressed forward with such zeal that some people began to ask questions. These questions produced interesting answers: First, it was discovered that Phillips sought to prolong the case against Vidrine so he could continue his affair with the FBI agent assigned to the case (Ekko Barnhill) instead of returning home to his wife in Dallas. Second, Philips harbored a personal vendetta against Vidrine and seemingly wanted to do everything possible to make his life miserable. These motives fall a bit short of the “pursuit of justice” that is supposed to guide EPA cases.
Ruling. The 142-page ruling relates this “you can’t make this stuff up” story in a way that reflects Judge Rebecca Doherty’s obvious frustration for Phillips’ actions on behalf of the U.S. government. The judge wrote that 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.”
Furthermore, Judge Doherty railed against the complete absence of evidence against Mr. Vidrine and ordered the U.S. government to pay Mr. Vidrine $127,000 in defense fees, $50,000 in lost income, and $900,000 in loss of earning capacity. She added that:
This Court is acutely aware punitive damages are not allowed in cases brought against the government, and, this Court has in no way awarded punitive damages. However, given the egregious conduct displayed by an agent of the government and the devastation wrought on otherwise law-abiding citizens, had punitive damages been allowable, this Court would have awarded punitive damages in the hope of deterring such reckless and damaging conduct and abuse of power in the future.”
Moral of the story. The enormous power currently invested in the EPA allows for profound abuse and the destruction of innocent lives and businesses. To the extent that the EPA should wield power, it should do so through civil penalties which are clearly defined and narrow in scope. This case represents the worst excesses of federal overcriminalization and government’s failure to police its own employees. But it is hardly the only time the EPA has been guilty of overplaying its hand.