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26thSC
05-24-2006, 09:38 AM
May. 23, 2006

McConnell intervened in case, group says
LOUISVILLE DONOR PAID LOWER DAMAGE COSTS TO PARK SERVICE
By John Cheves
SPECIAL TO THE HERALD-LEADER

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell helped a major campaign donor who was in trouble with the National Park Service for destroying Civil War earthworks, a watchdog group said yesterday.

NTS Development Co. of Louisville delayed settlement of a Park Service claim for a year. McConnell's office intervened as part of "a political remedy," and, after the case got the attention of top agency officials, the damages the company had to pay were nearly halved, according to Park Service documents.

But McConnell's office said it only urged a meeting to resolve the case.

Park Service officials denied being improperly pressured, although the company's decision to work through McConnell did delay the process, they said.

"It does happen sometimes, particularly with corporations that are dealing with the government, if they are unhappy about something. They decide they want their member of Congress to get involved for them," said Russell Smith, superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia.

Last December, following a meeting suggested by McConnell's office, NTS agreed to pay $88,300 to compensate the Park Service for lost Confederate earthworks at the park near Fredericksburg, Va. That was far below the $152,000 in damages originally assessed.

The company's equipment crushed the earthworks -- small berms of soil -- while removing trees at NTS' adjacent Fawn Lake, an upscale golf-course community where some homes sell for more than $1 million. NTS owns other commercial and residential properties in half a dozen states, including Park Place Apartments on Tates Creek Road in Lexington and the Lake Forest Country Club in Louisville.

It was the second time that NTS costs for harming the Fredericksburg park were reduced.

In 1999, NTS agreed to pay $60,000 after being assessed $96,000 in damages, also related to wrecking earthworks. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, intervened in that case as well, according to Park Service records, although the extent of his involvement was not disclosed.

NTS executives and their families have contributed at least $46,000 to McConnell campaigns in recent years.

Asked for comment yesterday, NTS chief executive Brian Lavin released a brief statement through his company's attorney that did not address his appeal to McConnell.

"NTS accepted liability for the violation on the National Park Service easement land and negotiated an arm's-length settlement on the issue of damages directly through the Office of Solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior," the statement read.

'Dead in the Water'

McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer denied that there were special favors in the case.

"We offered the routine assistance of helping a constituent obtain a meeting," Steurer said. "We did not participate in the meeting. At no point did we play a role in the terms of the settlement reached between the constituent and the Department of Interior."

While senators can assist their constituents, McConnell should not intervene on behalf of a campaign donor with pending legal problems before a federal agency, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Ruch said his watchdog group learned about the case last year from Park Service employees, who warned that the pursuit of damages against NTS stalled as soon as McConnell's office called their bosses. The Park Service and NTS only settled after he requested documents about the case under the Freedom of Information Act, he added.

"This case wasn't even moving at glacial speed. It was dead in the water," Ruch said. "It's an example of political influence at the expense of the historical resources being held in trust for the American people."

In 2001, rangers patrolling the edge of the Fredericksburg park -- scene of fighting in 1864 -- discovered that half an acre of earthworks built to shield Confederate soldiers from artillery had been crushed by heavy equipment. The machinery was used for tree removal at NTS' Fawn Lake community.

The Park Service brought in experts to study the battlefield and help assess the significance of the losses. In 2004, it presented NTS with a bill for $152,000, said Smith, park superintendent.

But NTS never replied. Instead, it called McConnell's office.

"Informally, NTS representatives have said they will seek a political remedy through Mitch McConnell of Kentucky," according to an unsigned Park Service memo dated Oct. 14, 2004.

'A mini-scandal'

Months passed, but NTS did not communicate further with the Park Service until an informal Sept. 29, 2005, meeting in Washington arranged by McConnell's office. McConnell apparently did not send an aide, as Park Service officials had expected.

That meeting drew protests inside the Park Service because some of the agency's key lawyers and its experts most familiar with the damages were not invited to attend.

"I fear this will turn into another mini-scandal for the NPS," wrote Daniel Hamson, chief of the agency's environmental response, damage response and restoration branch, in an e-mail days before that meeting.

At a subsequent meeting Dec. 1, at Fawn Lake, lawyers for the Department of the Interior, the Park Service's parent agency, and NTS officials agreed to the reduced damages of $88,300.

Park Service spokesman David Barna said the reduced sum was "probably typical" for such cases, although he is not familiar with many similar efforts to recover damages for historic sites. Calls from the senator's office did nothing but guarantee that the case was taken seriously, Barna said.

"Absolutely, any time a senator or a member of Congress gets involved in something, it certainly gets attention," Barna said. "But ... it didn't have anything to do with the final settlement. I think the company really wanted to make it just go away, but that didn't happen."

tompritchett
05-25-2006, 09:24 AM
As one historical comedian once said, "we have the best Congress that money can buy".