Federal bureaucrats go after tree trimmer

Orange County Register
06/06/2014

Federal bureaucrats too often escape prosecution for willful and egregious abuses of public trust: accepting thousands in illegal gifts from lobbyists, consistently lying on timesheets to collect a bigger salary, operating private businesses from their cubicle, and spending outrageous sums of taxpayer money on extravagant conventions in Las Vegas. But private citizens who find themselves on the wrong side of a regulation enforced by one of these bureaucrats may not be so lucky. Consider the case of Mr. Ernesto Pulido, a bay area man with a tree trimming business, who was referred for federal prosecution for doing the job the government hired him to do.

Mr. Pulido’s Oakland, California landscape company was hired by the U.S. Postal Service to trim the trees around a parking lot for their mail trucks. The company began the job this federal agency hired them to do, but it was later brought to their attention that the trees they just cut back were home to several Black-Crowned Night Herons, a species of bird protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As a result of the tree pruning, the birds’ habitat was disrupted, and while no birds were killed, some sustained minor injuries. Trying to make the best of the situation, Mr. Pulido has publicly apologized for disturbing the birds and made a $2,500 contribution to a local shelter were they were taken for treatment and recovery.

But that wasn’t good enough for the Fish and Wildlife Service that decided to refer Mr. Pulido for federal prosecution where he could face up to six months in jail and a $15,000 fine.

As the federal bureaucracy and the web of new regulations grows more and more complex, the division between common sense governance and what our government does has never been greater. There’s an obvious and troubling disconnect when officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service believe that everyone should know that trimming trees in May is criminal. Through cult-like bureaucratic group-think, officials at an environmental agency and their radical allies in the environmental movement may convince themselves that this is commonsense, but it‘s really not.

Yes, there are sometimes circumstances when mistakes amount to “depraved indifference” and those when negligence leads to death or serious injury of a person. But most of the time, mistakes are mistakes. When citizens try to do what they can to atone for them, as Mr. Pulido did, it’s called “doing the right thing.” Little good comes from making such situations into criminal cases, even more so when our courts are already jammed.

Consider, in contrast, just a few examples of egregious conduct that’s been uncovered at the Environmental Protection Agency but wasn’t pursued as a criminal matter. One deputy assistant administrator accepted an $8,000 discount on a Mercedes-Benz arranged by a lobbyist doing business with the EPA. He has yet to face charges. Another EPA employee was recently revealed to have been collecting full salary and benefits, even though she has been unable to work for more than five years. This employee was given telework options several years ago for medical reasons, but seemingly noticed that no one really cared if she illegally stayed on the EPA’s payroll collecting a full salary without actually working.

There are common sense arguments for giving our environment legal protection. But as our government allocates scarce resources needed to stop criminal behavior, it’s starkly backward to prioritize prosecution of Americans who make small environmental mistakes and show true remorse over actual corruption in our government. After oversight by Congress helped ensure that the Fish and Wildlife Service got a well-deserved media pummeling for bureaucratically bullying Mr. Pulido, the Justice Department elected not to pursue charges two weeks after his referral. Bullies tend to back down when confronted, but the resolution to Mr. Pulido’s case might not have ended the same without the spotlight of transparency.

Darrell Issa, R-Vista, is a U.S. Representative for California’s 49th congressional district. Since January 2011, he has served as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.