By James Rufus Koren Staff Writer
Posted: 02/25/2011 09:07:13 PM PST

Last week, as the House of Representatives debated a bill that would fund the federal government from March through September, Republicans voted to block federal money from being used to implement the new health-care law, to enforce some environmental laws and to fund Planned Parenthood.

But behind those big-ticket items, House Republicans also pushed through a measure that would stop the federal government from paying groups that sue the government and win. It’s a move that attorneys and activists say could limit the ability of average citizens to take on Washington.

“This is someone using this financial crisis to screw the little guy over,” said Cory Briggs, a San Diego attorney who is representing a local group in a case against the federal Bureau of Land Management. “The current law gives the little guy a fighting chance against government abuse. Under the amendment, however, only the filthy rich would be able to find a lawyer to stop the abuse.”

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wy., would temporarily block funding for the Equal Access to Justice Act, which pays the court costs for people who successfully sue the government. Individuals with a net worth of more than $2million and businesses with a net worth of more than $7million are not eligible.

Alfredo Acosta Figueroa of Blythe doesn’t have $2million in the bank. The retired miner is one of the plaintiffs suing the BLM over its approval of solar power projects on hundreds of acres of desert land in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Figueroa and his group, La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, say the BLM has ignored or overlooked the impact solar power plants could have on Native American sites in the desert.

“There are over 25 sacred sites in the Blythe solar project,” Figueroa said. “These sacred sites are there and (BLM has) refused to recognize them. We had always worked together with the BLM. But now … they just became deaf or mute.”

Briggs, the attorney representing Figueroa and others in the case against the BLM, said he wouldn’t be able to pursue cases like this without the federal compensation.

“I don’t think (the plaitiffs) could afford to pay me if they had to come up with the money up front,” Briggs said.

Lummis, arguing for her amendment on the House floor, said she doesn’t want to scrap the Equal Access to Justice Act – she just wants a moratorium. She said the government needs to study how much money payed under the act is going to environmental groups.

“How many environmental groups are atually paying for their organization by routinely suing the federal government?” Lummis asked.

But Briggs said the law is clear: Money paid for attorney fees “are only for the attorneys.”

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