- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

For reducing the use of toxins at his Northbridge, Mass., manufacturing plant, James Knott received an award for outstanding achievement from Gov. Paul Cellucci in 1998. Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, were less impressed. Based on an agency investigation, he was indicted the same year on two counts of violating the Clean Water Act for pumping allegedly acidic water into the town sewage system. In an agency press release, EPA treated him like one of America's "most wanted," warning that a conviction could put him in jail for up to six years and cost him up to $1.5 million in fines.

But the case against Mr. Knott collapsed amid complaints from a judge that the evidence against him was itself tainted and that the prosecution against him was questionable or worse. Now it is Mr. Knott who is doing the suing, a black mark on the reign of EPA head Carol Browner and a warning to those who think anything goes when it comes to environmental protection.

Ostensibly the case began in October 1997, when EPA officials, acted on an anonymous tip from an employee at Mr. Knott's company, Riverside Mills Corporation, that the firm's wastewater treatment plant wasn't working and, therefore, was illegally dumping contaminated water into the public system. Two agency officials arrived at the plant unannounced and asked permission to conduct an inspection. Mr. Knott agreed as long as company officials accompanied them. The inspectors agreed, but subsequently managed to take wastewater samples out of their sight.

A month later, the agency returned in force to raid the company. As described by federal district Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton, "a virtual 'SWAT team' consisting of twenty-one EPA law enforcement officers and agents, many of whom were armed, stormed the … facility to conduct … samplings. They vigorously interrogated and videotaped employees causing them great distress and discomfort." For some seven hours, agents armed with semiautomatic pistols seized documents from file cabinets and desks, and Mr. Knott, 69, could only watch. Following still another raid in July 1998, a grand jury returned indictments against him in August of that year.

The agency thought it had caught him polluting based on wastewater samples taken at one particular site at the plant. Unfortunately for EPA's case, however, wastewater there didn't enter the public system until after it had been diluted by other water sources further up the line, after which it did meet government standards.

Such incompetence would have been bad enough. But there is more than a little evidence that the agency was guilty of much worse. Judge Gorton noted EPA officials "surreptitiously" obtained wastewater samples during the October 1997 inspection in violation of the agreement with Mr. Knott. Further, said the judge, the defendants "presented credible evidence" that someone (read: EPA) had altered the sampling data to make the readings appear in violation of federal law. The agency also failed to take additional samplings that might have undermined its case. Finally, it failed to provide evidence to the defendants suggestive of their innocence. Indeed, it initially denied the existence of such exculpatory material.

The superintendent of the local wastewater treatment plant told the Boston Globe that federal investigators had approached him to discuss possible problems with company wastewater. But he told them the water was so diluted by the time it reached the plant that it would have "no impact." The superintendent, James Madigan, had originally been scheduled to testify before the grand jury that indicted Mr. Knott, he said, but the feds called him and told him it wouldn't be necessary.

Its case collapsing, the government asked the court to drop the case it had so publicly brandished against Mr. Knott, saying the evidence against him was insufficient. Mr. Knott then sought payment from the government for attorneys' fees and other expenses under legislation introduced by Rep. Henry Hyde, that provides reimbursement in cases where a judge finds the federal government's action was "vexatious, frivolous or in bad faith." While not provably frivolous or in bad faith, Judge Gorton said, EPA's case "was clearly vexatious" and awarded the company more than $68,000 in fees. Black's Law Dictionary defines the term as calculated to "harass, disquiet or annoy."

This month Mr. Knott filed suit against both EPA and agency employees in their individual capacities for malicious prosecution and for violating constitutional rights protecting him against unlawful searches and seizures. One piece of evidence he might consider using dates to 1990. A letter he wrote that year to state environmental officials in connection with a dispute over electric generators somehow turned up in EPA files. At the bottom of the letter is a handwritten note from an unidentified official asking, "Do we just drop this?" Just below the note a colleague responded, "I wouldn't mind making his life miserable for awhile."

E-mail: [email protected]

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