Viridian Vexation


On August 1, a U.S. District Court ordered the federal government to cut Massachusetts factory owner Jim Knott a $68,000 check—payback for the money he spent during his four-year legal tangle with the Environmental Protection Agency. Knott was entitled to the award under the Hyde Amendment, a three-year-old law allowing defendants found innocent of federal criminal charges to seek reimbursement of legal fees. To win, they've got to prove the government's case against them was "frivolous, vexatious, or in bad faith."

Not too difficult in Knott's case. In 1997, more than a dozen EPA agents armed with semi-automatic weapons stormed into his wire mesh plant in Orthbridge, acting on an anonymous tip that he was violating the Clean Water Act by sending highly acidic wastewater through the sewage system. He was indicted on that charge—until a federal prosecutor admitted that officials had concealed evidence that would have exonerated him. While preparing to seek Hyde compensation, Knott found evidence suggesting that agents not only concealed data but falsified pH tests in order to incriminate him.

Almost as troubling as the agency's guile is the fact that it didn't simply file a civil complaint against Knott; it wanted to throw him into the slammer. Of course, if it had taken the less severe route, Knott wouldn't have been eligible for a dime: The Hyde Amendment applies only to criminal cases.