Dakota Access Pipeline owner files lawsuit claiming pipeline opponents are a vast criminal conspiracy

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Construction equipment is shown at a Dakota Access Pipeline construction site outside of Sandusky, Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

On Tuesday, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the corporation that owns the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), filed a federal lawsuit against environmentalist groups opposed to the pipeline. According to the filing in the U.S. District Court of North Dakota, the groups are frauds who don’t care about the environment and have engaged in a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy against ETP.

The lawsuit alleges Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and other environmentalist groups form “an illegal Enterprise” that has been “funding, directing, controlling, and intentionally inciting acts of terrorism,” engaging in “a scheme to defraud donors, supporters, state and federal treasuries, and others,” as well as “tax fraud” and “interstate drug trafficking.”

ETP is suing under provisions of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a 1970 law passed to help the federal government fight organized crime by increasing the range and severity of civil lawsuits against ongoing criminal enterprises. In addition to violating the RICO Act, the lawsuit claims the environmentalists also violated antiterrorism provisions of “the U.S. Patriot Act.” (The brief refers to the U.S. Patriot Act several times, but there is no law with that name. ETP’s lawyers must have meant to cite the USA Patriot Act.)

What is presented as proof of these charges in the 187 page brief is vague and often confusing. A Sierra Club Facebook post congratulating Greenpeace on a successful protest in the Arctic Ocean is offered as evidence of the Sierra Club’s terrorist activities and the alleged criminal collusion between the two nonprofits. That protest, it should be noted, had nothing to do with ETP.

The energy company’s lawyers repeatedly claim that none of the environmentalist groups opposed to DAPL actually care about the environment. According to the brief, the real goal of the groups is “raising money… not saving the environment. ‘Issues’ are selected according to which ones will generate maximum publicity and donations, irrespective of the environmental merits.”

The groups, in short, are only engaged in environmental activism to get rich by bilking money out of unsuspecting donors. Fossil fuel companies are innocent victims being unfairly persecuted in these fundraising scams, according to the brief.

The sweeping, emphatic and occasionally obviously incorrect statements in the brief are somewhat reminiscent of President Trump’s rhetorical style. That’s not surprising since the law firm that filed the brief on behalf of ETP is Kasowitz, Benson and Torres. The firm’s founder and managing partner is Marc Kasowitz, best known as Donald Trump’s longtime attorney. In July, Kasowitz was pressured into resigning as Trump’s attorney in the investigation of Russian involvement in 2016 election, after some of his emails became public. The emails had been sent to a stranger who offered Kasowitz unsolicited advice via Twitter, and were described by The Washington Post as “angry, threatening and profane.”

In its lawsuit, ETP is seeking an as yet undetermined amount of compensatory, punitive and exemplary damages. It’s also wants to be awarded triple its legal costs, and have the court issue an injunction to stop the environmentalist groups from protesting the DAPL and ETP.

Greenpeace issued a statement on Tuesday rejecting the charges in the brief.

This is the second consecutive year Donald Trump’s go-to attorneys at the Kasowitz law firm have filed a meritless lawsuit against Greenpeace. They are apparently trying to market themselves as corporate mercenaries willing to abuse the legal system to silence legitimate advocacy work. This complaint repackages spurious allegations and legal claims made against Greenpeace by the Kasowitz firm on behalf of Resolute Forest Products in a lawsuit filed in May 2016. It is yet another classic “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” (SLAPP), not designed to seek justice, but to silence free speech through expensive, time-consuming litigation. This has now become a pattern of harassment by corporate bullies, with Trump’s attorneys leading the way.

The Sierra Club has not yet issued an official response.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press describes SLAPP lawsuits as “an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing critics of businesses, often for environmental and local land development issues.”

Following Greenpeace’s response, Kasowitz, Benson and Torres issued a statement saying “no one reading Energy Transfer’s detailed 180-plus page complaint would think it is a SLAPP suit.”

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