Wetlands violator hopes president will save him from serving jail time

November 25, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

The case of William B. Ellen seems simple enough. Convicted last year of filling 86 acres of wetlands on Maryland's Eastern Shore, he is scheduled to go to prison Monday for his crime.

But his case has touched off a bitter debate between landowners and environmentalists over whether someone should be put behind bars for cutting down trees and filling in marshy land. The dispute has reached the White House, where President Bush apparently is mulling whether to pardon Ellen.

Ellen and his supporters contend that the 47-year-old marine engineer from Mathews, Va., should be spared prison, claiming he was a victim of overzealous enforcement of federal wetlands laws. He is scheduled to begin serving six months at a federal penitentiary in Petersburg, Va.

"We are on a full-court press to keep this man from going to the Pen," said Margaret Ann Reigle, founder of the Fairness to Landowners Committee, based in Cambridge. Her group claims to have more than 11,000 members in 38 states.

Ms. Reigle has become Ellen's unpaid publicist, arranging for him to be interviewed in recent weeks by television news programs and newspapers, including The Sun.

"We've got a fundamental moral issue when we start putting dirt-movers and tree-fellers in prison while we've got murderers and dope dealers on the street," she said.

The efforts of Ms. Reigle and others appear to have paid off. Two days ago, less than a week after the Wall Street Journal published an editorial calling for President Bush to commute Ellen's sentence or pardon him, Justice Department lawyers were called to the White House to discuss the case.

Now the other side is swinging into action. Stung by what he calls a "media blitz" on Ellen's behalf, Richard D. Bennett, the U.S. attorney for Baltimore, said yesterday that he and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest plan to go to the White House today to argue against freeing Ellen.

"I have never met an environmental polluter who felt he should go to prison," Mr. Bennett said.

Mr. Gilchrest, whose 1st District includes Dorchester County, where the wetlands were filled, said he believes the federal prosecution of Ellen was appropriate. "If this guy was being unfairly targeted by an overzealous bureaucracy, I would be defending him with my last breath," the Republican congressman said.

When he was elected in 1988, Mr. Bush declared there would be "no net loss" of the marshy, boggy areas once disdained, but now valued for curbing flooding, soaking up pollutants and nurturing dozens of species of fish, waterfowl and rare plants.

Within two years, however, Mr. Bush found himself backpedaling on his pledge when new federal guidelines for identifying wetlands roused an angry outcry from property owners whose land had not been regulated before. The administration launched a controversial effort to rewrite the guidelines, which was shelved only last week.

Scientists and wetlands regulators had warned that the administration plan would open up to development as much as half the nation's wetlands, including universally recognized marshy areas such as Florida's Everglades.

The case involving Ellen, which also ensnared a New York multimillionaire, was billed as the largest criminal wetlands case in U.S. history. After a four-week trial, Ellen was convicted by a U.S. District Court jury in Baltimore in January 1991 of five felony water-pollution charges. He was acquitted of a sixth charge.

The prosecution presented evidence that Ellen, while overseeing construction of a private waterfowl hunting and game preserve near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, repeatedly ignored warnings from environmental officials to stop work and obtain the federal permits needed to fill wetlands. Ellen directed construction crews to fill tidal and freshwater wetlands, to build roads and to carve out a waterfowl pond with bulldozers, witnesses testified.

Ellen's employer, Paul Tudor Jones II, a Wall Street trader who owned the 3,200-acre Dorchester property where the wetlands were filled, avoided trial by pleading guilty in 1990 to a misdemeanor. He paid $2 million in fines and restitution.

Ellen never testified in his own defense.

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