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A few years ago, when Steve Brittle suspected improper activity in the local office of the Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation, he wrote an impassioned letter to the FBI. He says he got an apathetic response from the feds suggesting that he take it up with the bureau's supervisor. He came away feeling powerless.
So in 1998, when Brittle, president of the environmental group Don't Waste Arizona, stumbled upon some documents that he believed showed the City of Phoenix had illegally kept fees that belonged to the federal government, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
As a result, Brittle and a Don't Waste Arizona associate have filed an unusual civil lawsuit against the City of Phoenix in federal court. The lawsuit seeks $37 million, about three times the amount Brittle alleges the federal government was cheated out of.
The case revolves around Reach 11, a 1,365-acre tract of federal land that borders the Central Arizona Project canal. In 1986, the city entered into a land-use agreement with the Department of Interior. The agreement authorized the city to operate and maintain Reach 11 for recreational purposes. The city was allowed to collect fees for use of the park, to pay for maintaining the area.
Brittle's suit alleges that the city also collected incidental fees from a variety of sources. Among them: more than $668,000 from the state of Arizona for highway construction; more than $547,000 from the city street transportation department in compensation for the 56th and 64th Street roadway crossings over the CAP canal; $125,000 from the city water services department for an easement across the lands.
Known as a qui tam lawsuit, Brittle's unorthodox legal approach is one that more and more private citizens are taking. If they win, they get to keep a sizable portion of the money that's recovered.
In a qui tam case, a private party sues on behalf of the United States. Qui tam suits have proliferated since 1986, when the federal government amended the False Claims Act, liberalizing the ability of private citizens to take legal action on behalf of the United States. According to a February 28 article in Legal Times, more than 1,500 qui tam cases have been filed since 1986.
Brittle says he found out about the money inadvertently while he and two associates were researching Bureau of Reclamation files relating to the 56th and 64th Street bridge project.
"What I saw sort of raised my eyebrows. It didn't sound right."
What Brittle found was a letter from the state Department of Transportation referring to the highway construction money and asking that the funds be placed into the proper account with the city.
Brittle says he did some library research and realized that the money the city had collected for incidental use of Reach 11 was supposed to be deposited with the United States treasury. He says he was particularly outraged to find that officials at the local office of the Bureau of Reclamation apparently knew about these funds but took no action.
"It looks like these federal government agencies are real involved in giving away public lands without the proper remunerations, and it looks to me like they were taking money that belonged to BOR and putting it in their own pockets," Brittle says.
Brittle's attorney, Howard Shanker, declined to comment on the case.
Shanker filed the suit last August, but it was kept under seal until recently. The city and Brittle are currently discussing discovery issues in the case, and a pretrial scheduling conference is set for early April.
Phil Haggerty, chief assistant to the city attorney, says the city's collection of these funds was done with the advice and cooperation of the Bureau of Reclamation, adding that most of the money went back into the preservation of Reach 11. Haggerty says the city plans to file a motion for summary judgment or dismissal by early June.
For the controversial Brittle, this is just the latest in a series of battles that have included the Sumitomo Sitix factory and Del Webb's New River Project. But in this case, the issue is appropriation of funds, not environmental protection.
Brittle's opponents have often accused him of raising a political and legal ruckus for his own personal profit. Considering that qui tam relators tend to receive 15 to 25 percent of what is awarded to the federal government, he stands to receive a huge windfall if this suit is successful.
But Brittle insists that he's not in this for the money.
"I don't know what, if anything, I would get out of it," he says. "But what I'm really concerned with is what seem to be all these weird backroom deals that are going on."
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: email@example.com