Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The unconscionable hypocrisy of the Wild Equity Institute

The Wild Equity Institute's blatant hypocrisy on the question of Sharp Park finances is almost too brazen to believe. I'll come back to that, but first some good news in the never-ending Golf War.

After successfully defending Sharp Park against the WEI led lawsuit attempting to close the landmark Alister MacKenzie golf course, the City of San Francisco will now fight the plaintiff's Bizarro World motion to have San Francisco taxpayers subsidize their legal fight against the citizens of San Francisco.  Briefs are being filed, and the case will be argued in federal court on May 10.  This story has percolated below the radar of most local mainstream media, but Law360 is on the case:

San Fran Blasts Enviros' $1.3M Fee Bid In Golf Course Case
"A federal judge dismissed the case as moot in December after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion and incidental take statement for the course, which said restoration and construction activities at the course is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the frog or the snake. Despite losing the case, the plaintiffs said it was their lawsuit that led to the city and county seeking the biological opinion and incidental take statement, and that therefore they are entitled to attorneys’ fees. The environmental groups have appealed the judge’s dismissal. 
“Their avowed goal in suing San Francisco was to shut down the Sharp Park golf course,” the city and county said of the coalition. “Had Wild Equity prevailed and achieved its litigation goals, it would not be appealing the dismissal and threatening multiple future lawsuits. Any fee award in this case would, ironically, fund Wild Equity’s continuing efforts to shut down the golf course, an outcome they failed to advance through this lawsuit but have pledged to continue to pursue ‘on all fronts.’
To anyone with a lick of common sense, asking San Francisco taxpayers to pay the legal costs of pursuing a losing lawsuit against the people of San Francisco would seem laughably absurd. But as I explained before, anything is possible when you step into the Looking Glass World of EAJA (Equal Access to Justice Act) and ESA (Endangered Species Act) legal fee reimbursements:
"Regardless of motivation, lucrative reimbursement of legal fees represent a significant financial incentive for litigants from the Center for Biological Diversity and their local "mini-me" variant the "Wild Equity Institute" founded by a relocated CBD staff attorney...  The simple reason why these lawsuits in general and the Sharp Park lawsuits in particular will never end, is that we - the taxpayers - at a federal, state, and even municipal level are paying environmental ambulance chasers to sue us."
If interested in the minutiae of why we may pay WEI to pursue meritless lawsuits against us, this Feburary post goes into excruciating details about the national problem of EAJA / ESA legal fee reimbursement abuse, of which these lawsuits are just one local example. Suffice it to say that the Tuscon based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has been reported to be a serial abuser of the EAJA /ESA reimbursement process, and the local mini-me clone - the Wild Equity Institute (WEI)  is following in their footsteps.  With this filing, it is clear that they are attempting to replicate the CBD litigation fee reimbursement treasure hunt here in the Bay Area. Think of it as opening a lucrative local franchise for an ambitious environmental litigator.  But we covered that ground before. In this post we'll focus on the blatant hypocrisy of the Wild Equity Institute and the misrepresentations of the ex-CBD staff attorney who founded the organization.

Like many municipalities during this economic downturn, the City of San Francisco has been wrestling with a significant budget shortfall. In 2010 and 2011, during the worst of the City of San Francisco budget crisis, the Wild Equity Institute organized a coordinated effort to promote a canard that the City was subsidizing the Sharp Park Golf course to the detriment of community organizations and social programs. The claim was demonstrably false, as explained in the video linked below. That did not stop the WEI from soliciting support from community organizations and supporters of progressive civic initiatives to participate in protests intended to pressure local pols into closing the Sharp Park golf course. These organizations were tragically duped. In fact about $250,000 of the $1.3 million that the Sharp Park Golf course annually  generates in revenues is siphoned into City coffers to pay overhead expenses in the Department of Parks and Recreation and for other City services. On an operational basis, the golf course subsidizes the City and not the other way around.  If WEI was successful in closing Sharp Park there would be less revenue in the city to fund the organizations that WEI conned into believing the canard.

Some examples of WEI disingenuously promoting this falsehood include WEI founder Brent Plater speaking to the SF Board of Supervisor Budget Committee on June 21, 2010 (At the 5:50 mark in this video) saying: "Here we have an opportunity to take the $300,000 we lose annually and reinvest it here in San Francisco.."

Brent Plater's statement in this video is completely, demonstrably false. If Sharp Park closed, it would cost the City an additional $200,000 to $300,000 /year in Sharp Park overhead contributions to City coffers and causing a net decrease in funds available for City investments.

The same misrepresentation was also distilled into the central message on this flyer promoting an April, 2011 rally at City Hall with a tag line  "Why is San Francisco subsidizing suburban golf in San Mateo County while cutting community service at home?" Of course, the answer is that San Francisco is not subsidizing Sharp Park. Quite the contrary. As demonstrated in the video above, Sharp Park is operationally subsidizing overhead costs for San Francisco city services. The premise of the poster is a lie. But that did not prevent the WEI founder and ex-CBD staff attorney Brent Plater from doubling down on that untruth when speaking at that rally saying: 

"We have a plan to close Sharp Park Golf Course, ... and with the money saved by the City and County of San Francisco, we can bring those resources back to our communities that need it for local services and neighborhood parks." 
 Despicable. If they succeeded in closing Sharp Park golf there would be even less money available to the City for local services and neighborhood parks.  I don't know how anyone associated with this organization can sleep at night.

If lying to these community organizations about the impact of closing Sharp Park on City finances was not enough, the true depth of their cynical hypocrisy became clear in the motion WEI filed earlier this year in Federal Court. After their lawsuit to close Sharp Park was dismissed, they asked for $1.3 million of legal fees to be paid to themselves from the City and County of San Francisco. As for Mr. Plater himself:
"Mr. Plater is submitting his bill to be reimbursed for 857.7 hours at a rate of $550.00 / hour. His total fee on the case so far: $471,735.00. This for his billable hours working on a case that was initially filed in March 2011 and continued through January 2013 when they filed an appeal after it was dismissed. The legal fee he is requesting is more than four times the total revenue that came into the Wild Equity Institute for the first three years of its existence. Not bad pay for 20 months work."
Yes, this is the selfsame Brent Plater who can be seen in the video above shedding crocodile tears while disingenuously claiming City community services were being robbed of $300,000 / year by a non-existent Sharp Park subsidy. He is now asking the judge to force the City to put over $470,000 of city funds straight into his own pocket (and/or that of his organization Wild Equity Institute). Unlike the fictitious subsidy to Sharp Park that WEI was flogging, the money he is demanding for legal fees expended suing the City in a losing effort would come straight out of the pockets of the organizations that stood next to him in that rally on the steps of City Hall.

Another way to think of this... If the plaintiffs prevail, it means that all of the revenues for one year of Sharp Park operations will go straight into the pocket of the lawyers seeking to shut it down.

I can only hope that someday a local reporter that resembles an actual journalist might ask Mr. Plater about his hypocritical claims.

Look - there are plenty of good environmental organizations out there that are working in good faith to improve the environment and protect endangered species in a common sense manner. The Wild Equity Institute is not one of them. If you have money to contribute to environmental causes, give it to somebody else.

Mike Wallach
Fix Pacifica Foreign Correspondent
San Francisco Bureau
X-posted from my other blog


Anonymous said...

Is this a great country or what? Not only will we fight for someone's right to disagree with us, we'll even pay the bills.

Scruffy McBogie said...

This is no surprise that Plater and his group have done this. We expected this all along as this is how they pay their bills.

Plater has long rallied that Sharp Park costs SF money and closing Sharp Park would channel that money elsewhere. Now he wants SF to pay his legal fees for losing.

If Plater had any self respect at all he would listen to his own argument and not sue the city for this money. Brent, could this money (legal fees) not be used elsewhere?

Lets all hope he loses again and maybe in the future he will pick a battle somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

Unconscionable is such a strong word. Lawyers always get paid. Why else would they do the work? It's how they are.

Anonymous said...

Not when they lose, genius. Google "contingency fee".

Anonymous said...

ignoramus. no lawyer worth his shingle would pass up an opportunity to dip into deep civic pockets, win or lose. contingency? please. happens all the time in such litigation. maybe less googling, more experience?

Anonymous said...

I think 1252 was being a little sarcastic, but not too much. Where the courts see a public interest in a case, nobody has to go home hungry because the public picks up the check.

Anonymous said...

How can you people actually defend these leeches? They filed a frivolous lawsuit, justifiably lost, and now you are somehow rationalizing them reaching back into our pockets?!!?

I can't tell what's the biggest problem; Plater trying to feed at the public trough or the people on here who put up with and excuse it.

Anonymous said...

1026 the world has bigger outrages than brent plater or lawyers in general. that doesn't constitute a defense of him or an excuse for his actions. just the facts. anyway, whether or not he collects from the City of San Francisco will depend on what the judge thinks of his claim. neither you nor I have a vote. best we can hope for is a golfer on the bench.