- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2000

Nobles and knaves

Noble: Film star Clint Eastwood, for highlighting trial lawyers' grab for a fistful of dollars. Testifying before Congress this week, Mr. Eastwood took aim at villains out to exploit the good intentions of Americans seeking to lower barriers of all kinds to the disabled. At issue is the wording of the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990 under President George Bush. That act mandates easier access to businesses for the disabled, among other things, but prevents Americans with disabilities from suing for financial gain. Lawyers, however, can charge $275 for every hour of a work day a company is allegedly in violation after filing suit. This provision is intended to force companies to face mounting legal costs or "voluntarily" comply.

Several congressmen and Mr. Eastwood think companies should have 90 days after a suit is filed before being fined. That way persons who unwittingly violate the law have time to comply with it without paying a fortune to wheelchair-chasing lawyers. Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, has introduced legislation that would make this change. The House Subcommittee on the Constitution, chaired by Rep. Charles Canady, Florida Republican, held hearings at which Mr. Eastwood testified.

Three years ago Mr. Eastwood's Mission Ranch Hotel in Carmel, Calif., suffered the legislation's unintended consequences. A disabled woman and a lawyer said the historic building and its parking lot didn't comply with the act and are seeking $577,000. Although revising the law won't save Mr. Eastwood from that legal fight, the 69-year-old actor and former mayor of Carmel said taking this fight to Congress may save small business owners who don't have the resources to stand their ground. "I figured I won't back down because of all these people … who can't defend themselves," he said in the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Foley argue some lawyers are misusing an act intended to help the less fortunate. Once it is amended the disabled and the public at large will be better served. "It's really not very fair. These lawyers cloak themselves under the guise they're doing a favor for the disabled when really they're doing a disservice," Mr. Eastwood told the committee on Thursday.

• Knave: Park Service official Roy Weaver, for lighting a fire in New Mexico. Mankind has known for thousands of years that fire has a tendency to get out of hand, but federal bureaucrat Roy Weaver is still learning that concept. For that the Bandelier National Monument park superintendent is the knave of the week.

Thanks to Mr. Weaver's carelessness, 47,000 acres of New Mexico, 260 houses, parts of an Indian reservation and five out of the six buildings used to construct the original atomic bomb were burned. The fire came within 50 feet of a building containing plutonium, forced 20,000 people to flee in terror, closed Los Alamos (our premier nuclear laboratory), and will end up costing taxpayers millions.

The fire was started May 4 to clear some dry wood in a 300-acre plot, but quickly spread out of control; two weeks later 1,500 firemen were still battling the blaze. The fire has been kicked along by 50 mile-per-hour winds and at one point stretched across an 89-mile perimeter.

Mr. Weaver is now on administrative leave for, among other things, ignoring a National Weather Service report that called for unusually dry and windy conditions the day had received the worst possible rating for a "controlled burn," according to Sam Donaldson on ABC's "This Week." One wonders why Mr. Weaver sought a weather report if he was willing to start a fire under the worst possible conditions.

This administration has already decided to move beyond this burning as quickly as possible before reporters begin to ask about national security implications for closing Los Alamos (the same lab Wen Ho Lee worked from when he allegedly transferred secrets to the Chinese). The White House has agreed to pay to rebuild homes lost in the fire and accepted responsibility for the disaster. One wonders how much more government "protection" like this the environment can stand.

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