Another View: Cash penalties key to some prosecutions

Published: Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A

In his recent commentary ("Money shouldn't be the motive for prosecutions," Feb. 7), Matthew G. Jacobs writes critically of enforcement cases where fines and penalties are paid to the prosecution office. One case he cited was a gasoline pollution case my office filed. He claims prosecutions are distorted when the prosecutor's office has a money interest in the case.

Jacobs brings to mind the old saying that a little information can be dangerous. His conclusions rely more on conjecture and speculation than facts.

My office filed this case in 2003 (not an era of tight budgets) because the defendants had discharged harmful pollutants and waste into our soil and water. In Sacramento, water is important. Stopping pollution is important. Without enforcement, the oil companies would not clean up their mess and would have no incentive to behave.

The defendants included major oil companies – Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell and BP/Arco. People talk about the power of government in litigation, but these companies have annual revenues totaling $1.8 trillion. We were David against Goliath.

We investigated evidence for 542 violation sites. Records from the county Environmental Management Division, and those the oil companies were required to produce, totaled over 300,000 pages. We had multiple lawyers and support staff on the case.

For two defendants, we joined forces with the attorney general's office, because the defendant's poor environmental practices were statewide. The major oil companies used attorneys from all over the country – none from Sacramento. They would not admit responsibility and pay cleanup costs and fines without a fight. The litigation lasted over eight years.

Distribution of the settlement was governed by statutes and court orders. In total, $5.3 million went for cleanup, remediation and environmental efforts at the county Environmental Management Division. Part of the settlement did go to the district's attorney's budget, reimbursing us for the cost of this eight-year effort.

Jacobs, a former federal prosecutor who represents businesses, characterizes enforcement actions as hidden taxes companies are forced to pay to defend and settle these claims. But the real taxes are those the public must pay when local government must clean up the pollution these companies leave behind.

I do not apologize for making the oil companies clean up their mess, pay penalties to deter them from doing it again and reimburse the county for the effort we had to undertake to make them do so. Our county and citizens are better for it.

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