A federal judge got so angry at Interior Secretary James G. Watt's effort to avoid paying environmentalists $59,500 in attorneys' fees that he ordered Watt yesterday to pay $230,400 instead.
District Judge Aubrey Robinson ruled that the government had wrongly breached an agreement it signed last Jan. 19, in the last days of the Carter administration, on fees due three environmentalist attorneys for their work opposing Interior over oil leasing off the coast of Alaska. The refusal to pay, the judge said, was a $170,000 mistake.
Robinson ruled that the government should have paid the lawyers more than $59,500, so he increased their settlement and then added a 15 percent penalty on top of that as punishment for the delay. The government would have had to pay none of this extra money if it had paid them in the first place, he said.
"It is ironic that the federal government, which is seeking to stem wasteful government spending, consciously avoided the opportunity to save over $170,000 in attorneys' fees and costs by breaching the settlement agreement in this case," Robinson wrote. "No grounds for this breach appear in the record because no grounds exist."
The $59,500 agreement involved the Department of Justice, which handled the so-called Beaufort Sea case for Interior, and attorneys Bruce Terris, representing the North Slope Borough of Alaska; Pat Parenteau of the National Wildlife Federation, and Clifford Curtis of the Center for Law and Social Policy, who represented the Alaskan village of Kaktovik.
The three had argued successfully before Judge Robinson last year that leasing in the Beaufort Sea should be halted because not enough was known about its possible effects on the bowhead whale, an endangered species. The decision was later reversed in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Our people feel it's virtually unprecedented and irregular to pay lawyers a fee for losing a case, so they took it up with the court again," said Harmon Kallman, a spokesman for Interior. They also argued that Department of Justice attorneys signed the agreement without consulting Interior.
Judge Robinson said all that was necessary was that litigation concern an important legal principle. He said the environmentalist attorneys deserved more than their normal fees because of their skillful work and added another 15 percent because of the delay in being paid.
"I guess the judge got sore at us," Kallman said.