The U.S. government hands out millions of dollars each year to various environmental organizations to help protect fish, wildlife and other aspects of the environment. And every year, those same groups spend millions suing the government over everything from forest policy and carbon emissions to water quality and wolf habitats.
When the CIA failed to replace 30 percent of its fleet with hybrid cars, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity sued because "its members and staff are impacted by the health effects of oil production," according to the filing. And when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to review the status of slick-stop pepper grass, the group ran up $200,000 in legal bills.
Who paid the attorneys fees? The American taxpayers did.
In the lucrative world of environmental law, the biggest defendant is the federal government, and taxpayers foot the bill. The nation's ten largest environmental groups have sued the government more than 3,000 times in a nine-year period, according to legal fund the Western Legacy Alliance, an Idaho-based legal fund that defends ranchers and farmers.
"The federal government is paying environmental groups to sue the federal government," Karen Budd-Falen, a former government official and an attorney in Cheyenne, Wyo., affiliated with the Western Legacy Alliance, told Fox News. "Taxpayers are paying for litigation, but not over substantive but procedural issues."
Procedural issues pertain simply to instances in which the federal government missed a deadline or lost the suit on a technicality, as opposed to substantive issues that are argued before a judge and require a ruling on a dispute or question.
In most legal cases, each side pays their own legal bills. That is not the case, however, when nonprofit, public interest groups sue the federal government.
Under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), Congress allows needy individuals and nonprofit organizations to recover attorneys fees whether they win, lose or settle. And while the original intent was to guarantee access to the courts for the poor, a dozen of the nation's wealthiest environmental groups are using the law.
The Environmental Defense Fund has shelled out $69 million in 67 lawsuits over the past nine years. The National Wildlife Federation has spent $97 million on 233 cases. The Wilderness Society has spent $36 million on 150 cases. And the Sierra Club has spent $46 million on 983 cases. That's just a partial list of lawsuits against the federal government over the past nine years, according to the Western Legacy Alliance.
"I absolutely believe that these cases are more about gathering attorneys fees than 'damages,'" Budd-Falen told Fox News. "There is no evidence that one dollar of these fees awarded to any group has gone into on-the-ground habitat or species protection actions.
"A majority of environmental groups use in-house attorneys, but they are requesting private attorney rates, in some cases up to $600 per hour," she said. "These fees make money for the organizations to be used to fund more litigation."
In one case, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and the Western Environmental Law Center challenged a forest service regulation. There was no trial, and the agency did not contest the claim, which was resolved administratively. Yet seven environmental attorneys claimed 930 hours of work and $479,000 in attorneys fees, with one lawyer seeking $650 an hour.
In just one month, The WildEarth Guardians filed petitions to list 700 species as endangered. Each petition requires U.S. Fish and Wildlife to produce and publish a scientific response in 90 days. If it misses the deadline by one day, the agency can be sued -- and it usually loses.
But according to members of WildEarth Guardians, these suits help, rather than harm, the American people.
"We step in when the government doesn't do its job. Our work is vital to protecting clean air, clean water and native wildlife," John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, told Fox News. "The claims that our work is frivolous is totally unfounded. We only do work when the government doesn't do its job.
"Every day that we can delay development or ensure that the government complies with both the letter and the spirit of the law is a day where we feel like the public interest is victorious," he said.
WildEarth Guardians has filed at least 180 lawsuits in the federal district courts and at least 61 appeals in the appellate courts.
Now, the growing number of cases is beginning to attract the attention of some lawmakers in Congress.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., has written to the Department of Justice asking for an investigation, pointing out that much of the money being paid comes out of the Equal Access to Justice Act fund, which Congress set up for the indigent and public interest groups to recover legal fees.
Right now, the government does not account for how much is paid out to whom or for what reason.
"These are taxpayer dollars that are being used by the federal government to compensate people who have sued the federal government. I believe that taxpayers have the right to know who those people are and how much they've been paid," Lummis told Fox News.
"I think we are creating an incentive for environmental organizations to develop shops of specialists that are extremely well compensated, just to sue the federal government and recover attorneys fees."
The Sierra Club, the Center for Biodiversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The National Wildlife Federation and Earthjustice all refused to comment on the findings of the Western Legacy Alliance. But Horning maintains that despite their multimillion-dollar budgets, these environmental groups still qualify as the little guy.
"The government sometimes forgets to serve the little guy, and the little guy is sometimes the voiceless, whether it's public interest in clean air, water or wildlife."
But rancher John Kirkbride sees it differently. When groups sue the federal government over grazing rights, he is forced to hire an attorney to protect his rights but can't collect his legal costs because he files as "a friend of the court" and is not a named plaintiff.
"Taxpayers are footing the bill for a lot of this. I can't help but be angry this is happening," Kirkbride told Fox News.
"These interests have become very proficient at stalling, delaying and impeding progress. That is their stock and trade. It is a cash cow for them to be able to take advantage of this (EAJA) act."