Judge concludes feds never had “probable cause,” sees “personal vendetta”at work

A “rogue” agent with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who lead a “malicious” prosecution against a Louisiana firm perjured himself in grand jury testimony that was used to secure criminal charges, according to the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF).

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana has ordered the federal government to pay $1.67 million to Hubert P. Vidrine, a WLF client, based on findings that the EPA had maliciously prosecuted Vidrine for alleged environmental crimes that could not substantiated.

In a 142-page ruling issued on Friday, the court concluded that the federal government never had probable cause to determine that Vidrine committed a crime, and that the prosecution was motivated by malice against Vidrine on the part of Keith Phillips, the EPA agent who headed up the government’s case.

“This case is a poster child for the abuses that can occur when the federal government unleashes its awesome prosecutorial powers without adequately supervising the work of its agents,” said WLF Chief Counsel Richard Samp following the court’s ruling. “Mr. Vidrine suffered tremendous financial and emotional losses because a rogue EPA agent lied to the grand jury and misled prosecutors and the court for his own malicious reasons.”

WLF partnered with Gary Cornwall, a lawyer from Beaumont, Texas who served as Vidrine’s principal trial counsel. The criminal prosecution of  Vidrine arose in connection with his work as a long-time employee of Canal Refinery, a Louisiana firm in the business of processing used oil.

In 1996, EPA conducted a search of Canal’s premises to determine whether Canal had been improperly storing hazardous wastes in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the federal environmental statute governing the storage and disposal of hazardous wastes. The search and the subsequent investigations did not produce evidence of any such crime, according to WLF.

In her decision, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty determined that federal agents never possessed even “probable cause to charge Vidrine with a crime.

The judge also concluded that Phillips, who was the principal witness before the grand jury, perjured himself and also “permeated the entire investigation with omissions, half-truths, overstatements, inflammatory language, misstatements, patent falsehoods, and tortured readings of regulations,” all for the purpose of securing the 1999 indictment and continuing the criminal prosecution through 2003,” WLF explained in its release. Prosecutors dropped the charges in 2003 when Phillips failed to produce the alleged evidence of guilt that he previously told them he possessed, according to the release.

Judge Doherty also concluded that the EPA agent acted with malice.

“She based that determination on evidence indicating that: (1) Phillips had a personal vendetta against Vidrine; (2) he was `giddy’ with `newly minted power’ after being promoted to the head of the Canal Refinery investigation in 1999; and ) he used the continuing investigation for purposes of carrying on an extra-marital affair with the chief FBI agent assigned to the case,” the release said. “That agent, Ekko Barnhill, lived in Louisiana, while Phillips lived with his wife in Dallas. Judge Doherty determined that maintaining criminal proceedings facilitated the sexual affair because it provided Phillips with the opportunity to travel to Louisiana to see Barnhill while he was also working on the Vidrine prosecution.”

Vidrine filed an administrative claim for damages in 2005. When he received no response, he filed suit in 2007. In a deposition conducted in connection with the suit, Phillips denied that he had an extra-marital affair with Barnhill. After Barnhill later admitted to the affair, Phillips was indicted for having falsely denied under oath the existence of the affair, according to WLF.

Judge Doherty awarded Vidrine $1.677 million in damages, including the costs of his criminal defense ($127,000), lost income ($50,000), and loss of earning capacity ($900,000).  In her ruling, the judge also held that Philips “set out with intent and reckless and callous disregard for anyone’s rights other than his own, and reckless disregard for the processes and power which had been bestowed on him, to effectively destroy another man’s life.”

While the damages were awarded against the U.S. government (under the Federal Tort Claims Act), EPA agent Phillips was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice as a result of his testimony in the tort suit, the WLF release stated.

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at kmooney@pelicanpolicy.org and followed on Twitter.