Regulation enforcers are out of control
BY DIANE DIMOND
Nobody likes a bully — especially me. But what if it is the United States government that is the bully? What if certain people in Washington decide to target a citizen and then use all the resources available to them to crush that person?
I must tell you about a story I researched recently because millions of your tax dollars were used to wage an eight-year war against Robert Lorsch, a successful California businessman and philanthropist who loves animals. I mean, this guy gets all weepy when he talks about helping animals, and he and his wife Kira have donated astounding amounts of money to animal causes — like the 36-acre Wildlife WayStation refuge in Topanga Canyon, Calif.
Since 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the WayStation for various violations of the Wildlife Protection Act. For example, WWS’s owner, Martine Collette, was told she didn’t have proper permits, her veterinarians weren’t properly qualified, animal cages weren’t regulation, a portion of fence needed repair and animal food had been left unrefrigerated on a countertop for too long. The USDA filed a legal action.
Interestingly, the government had turned to Collette in the mid-’90s to take in dozens of displaced chimps used in medical tests at laboratories that were closing down. Yet there they were, writing her up for violation after violation, offering no compliance help. One lengthy point of contention centered on one of the chimps who self-mutilated — likely a result of the lab experimentation he’d endured. The USDA wanted more done for that chimp and assured sterilizations for all the others at the WayStation. State and local inspectors found problems at the WWS, too.
In 2003, after the USDA filed a second legal action, Collette feared she’d loose the sanctuary and that her animals — from tigers, bears and llamas to alligators, peacocks and exotic snakes — would be euthanized by the government.
Enter then Robert Lorsch, who offered to help Collette get into compliance with all the various regulators. He donated money to help fix the problems. And, having the can-do business mind that he does, Lorsch got involved in resolution conference calls with USDA officials.
To make a long story short, Lorsch got testy with an agent on the phone. And, when he became convinced that some WWS volunteers were actually working undercover for the USDA magnifying minor offenses into major violations, he offered a cash reward in the WWS newsletter to anyone who could “out” the USDA snitches.
This appears to be Lorsch’s biggest “crime.” Suddenly the USDA had added his name to the pending 2003 court case. This was a man who had no official position with the WWS and hadn’t even heard of the refuge when the violations were said to have occurred. Yet there he was, listed as a defendant.
Again, to shorten this long saga, a judge ultimately ruled against the USDA and chided them for adding Lorsch, the “best friend of the WWS,” to the lawsuit. Chief Administrative Law Judge Marc Hillson’s 52-page decision concluded, “In many ways the government’s case against Lorsch illustrates the maxim that ‘no good deed goes unpunished.'”
The USDA appealed the ruling. It lost the appeal. Yet the USDA lawyers kept coming — filing another action in 2007 for essentially the same types of violations on long-ago dates. Again, Lorsch was listed as a defendant! Not any other benefactor or board member, just Martine Collette and the charitable Lorsch.
Court action on this latest prosecution was set to start later this month in Los Angeles, which would have again included the expense of flying the Washington-based USDA legal team back to California and housing them in hotels for what could have been long, expensive stays.
But I learned that several weeks ago officials took a stab at trying to wrap it all up while still punishing Collette and Lorsch. They approached Collette and offered to drop the case if she would sign a consent decree and pay a $5,000 fine. She jumped at the settlement. The deal was offered to Lorsch, except his fine was set at $10,000. He refused.
“It’s not about the money,” Lorsch told me. “It’s about the fact that I will not admit I did something I didn’t do!” And Lorsch lambasts the agency for spending what he figures was upward of $5 million coming after him all these years.
On Dec. 14, Lorsch filed a multimillion-dollar malicious prosecution lawsuit against the USDA. He says if he wins, he’ll pay his legal bills and costs, and give up to a million dollars to animal charities. After he filed, Lorsch says, he learned that lead USDA attorney Colleen Carroll had issued a terse Notice of Withdrawal announcing, “Pursuit of this matter … would not further the goals of the Animal Welfare Act.” Case closed.
“I was persecuted because I beat them in court and they couldn’t stand it. When people are being thrown out of their houses, what right does a federal agency have to waste so much tax money?”
Good question, and one I would have liked to have posed to the USDA. But, after repeated calls and e-mails to the agency I got no response by deadline time. As a taxpayer who helped fund this vendetta and as one who despises bullies, where do I go to ask for my money back?
Diane Dimond is a Rockland resident, syndicated columnist, author and special correspondent for Entertainment Tonight. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net.