After a decade of battles, a Washington, D.C., Circuit Court has ruled the government can't threaten a Las Vegas Environmental Protection Agency employee with firing and criminal charges for participating in environmental groups.
Jeff Van Ee filed suit in 1991 after his bosses at EPA told him he couldn't actively represent Sierra Club or other organizations in any issues involving any part of the federal government.
An electrical engineer who monitors contaminants in air, water and soil, he challenged the orders on the basis that he was not being paid and was doing work with the Sierra Club on his own time, which did not specifically involve his job.
He argued that making threats he would be fired, jailed and fined for continued participation in conservation groups violated his First Amendment rights as well as violating the federal Whistleblower Act.
He represented the Sierra Club in hearings with the Bureau of Land Management that involved a land transfer and the protection of desert tortoises in the Las Vegas area. After being warned by EPA, he was forced to curtail his volunteer activities, but continued his lawsuit.
In an opinion issued Feb. 8 - nearly a decade after the suit was filed - the circuit court finally resolved the issue in Van Ee's favor. The opinion says the laws restricting certain activities by federal workers were designed to prevent conflicts of interest and to prevent them from getting into situations that would financially benefit themselves.
"Neither the text nor the legislative history demonstrates a congressional intent to prevent federal employees from representing non-governmental interests without compensation in proceedings in which broad policy issues are at stake," says the court opinion.
The decision says Van Ee has the right to represent groups such as Sierra Club and act as a spokesman. It says there is no real conflict of interest or abuse of his position with EPA.
The court ordered the district court in Las Vegas to issue a summary judgment on Van Ee's behalf.