“Over 40 years, we now define pollutants as dirt and your back yard as a navigable stream. It wouldn’t be funny if we weren’t putting people in jail for it. Guy named Robert Lucas, down at the southern part of Mississippi, 10 years ago was 70 years old. He was put in prison for 10 years. He just got out. Ten years without parole. Ten years without early release. He was convicted of a RICO conspiracy. RICO’s something you’re supposed to be going after gangsters for. You know what his conspiracy was? Conspiracy to put dirt on his own land. We’ve gone crazy. We’ve run amok.”
— Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), speech at the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee’s Lincoln-Reagan Dinner, June 9, 2015
An elderly man sitting in prison for 10 years after being accused of racketeering and organized crime — just for putting dirt on his land.
It’s quite a story. So bizarre, in fact, that it didn’t sound right, even considering Rand Paul’s signature rant against government bullies.
We now present to you the real story of how dirt — and much more — got Robert Lucas locked up in prison.
The saga dates to around 1994, when Lucas, a southern Mississippi real estate developer, began buying land for his 2,600-acre property for mobile home lots.
In 1996, state and federal inspectors began telling Lucas that he did not have proper permits and warned him against developing more of his land. Lucas was told that nearly half of his property, Big Hill Acres, was federally protected wetlands — meaning he could not develop, drain or fill the land (with dirt, cement, pipes, debris or other items) without federal approval. But he continued to build and fill the land, despite cease-and-desist orders.
He hired an engineer to design and approve sewage systems, which were installed in the soil and then covered with topsoil (i.e., “dirt”). Inspectors warned Lucas that sewage systems in wetlands need to meet state and federal standards, so that waste is properly filtered and disposed without contaminating drinking water.
But no one had applied for or received any such permit, according to the 2004 grand jury indictment.
Big Hill Acres then was advertised and sold mostly to low- or fixed-income families. Lucas represented to potential buyers that the lots were “habitable and suitable for home sites when in fact they were not,” the indictment said. Some residents later testified that they were not told that their homes were on wetlands.
The area was prone to seasonal flooding. So homes flooded during major rainfalls, while raw sewage seeped up from the ground, and flowed through the subdivision.
Federal prosecutors accused Lucas, his daughter (who sold real estate) and the engineer of 41 counts of conspiracy to defraud, environmental violations and mail fraud (over the delivery of payments for the properties by mail). Prosecutors said Lucas, his daughter and the engineer knowingly sold properties with illegal and malfunctioning septic systems, and built and filled federally protected wetlands despite numerous warnings.
Lucas’s attorneys disputed that the property meets the federal definition for wetlands, citing ambiguities in the law. They said septic system failures were common in the county, usually because homeowners didn’t maintain the systems properly — not because the developer installed them poorly. They portrayed Lucas as being caught in a web of local, state and federal regulations, and as collateral damage of long-standing regulatory disputes.
The jury, however, found the trio guilty on all counts. They were sentenced to prison and ordered to pay hefty fines and costs.
But it didn’t end there. Lucas was placed on bond and remained free during his appeal. His attorneys argued that Big Hill Acres is not considered a wetland, based on a new, more conservative definition from a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, according to the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss.
Meanwhile, Lucas continued selling his property. And by doing that, he violated the terms of his bond. The appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling, and Lucas began serving his nine-year prison sentence in 2008.
Paul dedicates a whole chapter to this case in his 2013 book, “Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds.” The defendants served unjust sentences, he wrote, especially given that “wetlands” was an ambiguous term then. Paul blamed inept and arrogant government bureaucrats:
“These bureaucratic tentacles of the federal government had made their decree, and the EPA was determined to make an example out of Lucas and his family — even if Lucas hadn’t violated a single law. This wasn’t about justice, but power and government control. Lucas fought this bureaucratic army with all his might. Unfortunately, his daughter was caught in the cross fire.”
Lucas was playing by the rules, when state regulators revoked his permits and began turning his life upside down, Paul wrote: “A state functionary who oversaw the issuing of septic permits seemed to subjectively revoke one hundred of Lucas’s permits, and he suddenly found himself fighting tooth and nail to have them reinstated.”
The state official, Pansy Maddox, did rescind Lucas’s septic tank permits in 1996, saying the inspector incorrectly evaluated the property. The inspector had been recommending up to 36 applications for approval every day — when each needed a site valuation — and “gave the appearance that someone had sat at a desk and filled out paperwork,” Maddox testified.
When state health officials reevaluated the land, they found more than half the lots unsuitable for underground septic systems. Four years later, Lucas applied for an after-the-fact permit; it is unclear based on public records whether that permit was approved. But by then, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency had issued cease-and-desist orders.
Paul has been a big champion for Lucas, in addition to other high-profile supporters. Mississippi Secretary of State Delbeg Hosemann, former governor Haley Barbour and former lieutenant governor Phil Bryant all sought clemency for Lucas, his daughter and the engineer, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald. Wyatt Emmerich, publisher of a Jackson newspaper, wrote columns to vindicate the trio.
Paul has his opinions, but he got factual details wrong while retelling the story in this speech. Lucas was never convicted of racketeering charges (often referred to as RICO), filed against organized criminal organizations.
And Lucas did not serve his full nine-year term. After serving about seven years, he was released early to a halfway house, where the 75-year-old will live under federal Bureau of Prisons custody until later this year. His attorneys did not respond to The Fact Checker’s requests for an interview.
Paul’s campaign did not respond when we asked for additional comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Paul tells a fantastic story, as if an elderly man poured some dirt on his land, federal inspectors came after him for organized crime, and tossed him in a prison cell for 10 years.
The Fact Checker takes no stance on the merits of this case, but just about every aspect of Paul’s recounting is inaccurate at worst and misleading at best. Lucas was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy and environmental violations — not of organized crime. He was convicted for his role in developing 67 lots inside federally protected wetlands, building on wetlands without approval and knowingly selling land with illegal sewage systems that were likely to fail. And he did not serve the full nine-year sentence in prison.
We imagine retelling the whole, sewage-bubbling-up portion of the story might not be the most appetizing anecdote for a dinner. But this story is about much more than an elderly man simply putting dirt on his land. Paul’s storytelling of government gone amok has run wild on its own.
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