Washington, DC — Prosecution of a politically-connected developer who destroyed irreplaceable Confederate breastworks in a national park has been hampered by the intervention of a powerful U.S. Senator and the Deputy Director of the Park Service who bought a condominium in the development, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The case was finally settled, more than four years after the violation, for far less than had been originally assessed and only after the behind-the-scenes lobbying was threatened with exposure.
On July 11, 2001 a National Park Service (NPS) ranger discovered that an employee of Fawn Lake, a real estate development in Fredericksburg, Virginia, damaged approximately a half acre (24,000 sq. ft.) of Confederate earthworks on Longstreet Drive in the Wilderness Battlefield portion of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
Fawn Lake is a golf-course community of 1,400 luxury homes, ranging from $700,000 to $1.4 million, whose website touts that “the land surrounding Fawn Lake is rich in Civil War history.” It is a project of NTS Development Company, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, whose President and CEO is Brian Lavin, a campaign contributor to Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Majority Whip.
Two years earlier, in July 1999, NTS had destroyed 100 feet of Confederate earthworks. Despite the intervention of Sen. McConnell, NTS paid $60,000 in a settlement of a $96,000 assessment brought by the Park Service. For the more serious repeat violation in 2001, NPS asked for a considerably bigger fine.
This time around, however, Sen. McConnell had an inside ally, NPS Deputy Director Don Murphy, who lives in Fawn Lake and is a member of its homeowner’s association. Staff from Sen. McConnell’s office contacted the NPS Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs, headed by a Bush political appointee named Jeff Taylor. In a series of meetings and phone conversations, McConnell’s staff, Murphy, Taylor and lawyers for NTS focused on how to reduce, or possibly waive, the monetary damages.
These “negotiations” excluded agency lawyers and the historical resource specialists who would normally handle such matters and were to culminate in one last meeting, on September 29, 2005. As that date neared, two things happened to derail it: NPS staff started voicing objections and PEER submitted the first of two Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover the details of NTS’ longstanding resistance to accepting liability. Murphy stepped aside and the meeting was rescheduled with government lawyers present. In December 2005, NTS finally agreed to pay a reduced fine of $88,300.
“This is a textbook case of political string-pulling to impede protection of our heritage resources,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Park Service is still withholding an estimated 40 pages of the most sensitive communications about the case. “Only the threat of exposure caused the cockroaches to scuttle, allowing a watered-down approximation of justice to occur.”