Crime in the Suites: An Analyis of Current Issues in White Collar Defense
Oct 12

Judge Awards $1.7 Million to Defendant in EPA Malicious Prosecution Case

On September 30, 2011, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana ordered the United States to pay $1.7 million in a malicious prosecution lawsuit to Hubert Vidrine, based on findings that the U.S. government had maliciously prosecuted Vidrine for alleged environmental crimes. This is a rare ruling by a federal court requiring the government to pay money damages for the overzealous actions of its agents.

In September 1996, agents from multiple law enforcement agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) executed a search warrant on Canal Refining Company, where Vidrine worked as a manager. The search was based on the assertion that hazardous materials may have been improperly stored at the facility in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. However, the search did not uncover evidence of any violations.

In December 1999, more than three years after the execution of the search warrant, Vidrine was indicted on one count of knowingly storing hazardous waste on the property of Canal Refining, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 6928(d)(2). In September 2003, more than seven years after the execution of the search warrant, the government filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss the indictment against Vidrine. This motion was granted.

In 2007, Vidrine filed a civil suit for malicious prosecution under the Federal Tort Claims Act, a statute allowing private parties to sue the United States in a federal court for most torts committed by persons acting on behalf of the United States. The court held that “probable cause did not exist to support knowledge on the part of Hubert Vidrine – the lynch pin to any possible criminal prosecution at issue.” The court also held that punitive damages are not allowed in cases brought against the government, but that if they were allowed, they would have been awarded in this case.

Keith Phillips, the EPA agent who spearheaded the investigation and subsequent indictment, later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and perjury relating to his false testimony during a deposition for the civil malicious-prosecution suit that led to the $1.7 million award to Vidrine. Phillips lied about an affair that he was having with an FBI agent also assigned to the Vidrine case.

In fact, Judge Rebecca F. Doherty wrote, “The evidence strongly indicated Agent Phillips deliberately used his investigation and prosecution of Hubert Vidrine to foster, further, facilitate and cloak his extra-marital affair with [FBI] Agent [Ekko] Barnhill, and perhaps, to exert improper influence over the manner in which she investigated and reported upon this case.”

Phillips faces up to 15 years on the criminal charges. No sentencing date has been set.

Judge Doherty’s detailed ruling in the civil case is a very important one for criminal defendants. It shows that courts will hold the government accountable when its agents initiate overzealous prosecutions of individuals. This is an important check on the government’s power over criminal defendants. It is a desirable development that individual agents are also being held accountable for their unlawful actions

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  • Gary Cornwell says:

    Good article. The victims, Hubert and Tammy Vidrine are my clients. I took their case in September, 2005, and I tried it in June, 2011. (A Greenwire article, subsequently republished in the New York Times, inaccurately reported that the case was handled by the Washington Legal Foundation, even though the original WFL press release accurately reported that I was the Vidrines’ lawyer.)

    I think that the most significant part of the story is perhaps that, while the case is unusual, the underlying wrongful government conduct probably is not. I wrote a letter last week to Senator Paul, explaining to him why I believe that the case may be unusual primarily because the Federal Tort Claims Act discourages lawyers from filing these cases, and not because the underlying conduct is all that rare. (If you’d like to have a copy of the letter, send me your email address and I’ll forward it to you.)

    Feel free to give me a call if you’d like to have more information.

    Gary Cornwell
    OFFICE: (409) 899-8639
    FAX: (713) 583-9020
    MOBILE: (409) 659-7788

  • hubert vidrine jr. says:

    My name is Hubert Vidrine. I was the victim of the EPA for over 15 years. The story you just read is true but the reality of living under the false indictment of the goverment is an experience that I would not wish on anyone. The stress and hardship that me and my family had to endure during these 15 years is something that very few usa citizens ever had to go thru. The fact that Keith Phillips, an EPA agent, had the power to start and continue the investagation for all this time without the US attorney Howard Paker or any of the EPA’s higher supervisors knowing that he did not have any of the tests that he testified to the grand jury about is a complete sham. They all knew that there was no test to prove their case but let keith phillips and fbi agent Ekko Barnhill testify on the results of the non-existing test. There should not be any immunity for US attorneys who allow false evidence to be admitted as evidence when they know that the evidence does not exist. This case shuld never have been prosecuted. I should have never lost the 15 best years of my life fighting this lie. The little bit of money that I got for this unjust torture was not worth it.The 5 months that Keith Phillips got in prison is a joke for what he did to me and my family. All the lies he told to the grand jury he could not be prosacuted for the 5 year limit for lying to a grand jury.If he could have been charged with these lies he would never live long enought to serve his time.I hope that this never happens to another citizen of this country but I know that this kind of abuse happens every day. It’s just that not enough people can fight these crooked agents and they get away with the abuse. thankyou Gary Cornwell for standing with me. You proved that not all Attorneys are in it just for the money.

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About Ifrah Law

Crime in the Suites is authored by the Ifrah Law Firm, a Washington DC-based law firm specializing in the defense of government investigations and litigation. Our client base spans many regulated industries, particularly e-business, e-commerce, government contracts, gaming and healthcare.

Ifrah Law focuses on federal criminal defense, government contract defense and procurement, health care, and financial services litigation and fraud defense. Further, the firm's E-Commerce attorneys and internet marketing attorneys are leaders in internet advertising, data privacy, online fraud and abuse law, iGaming law.

The commentary and cases included in this blog are contributed by founding partner Jeff Ifrah, partners Michelle Cohen and George Calhoun, counsels Jeff Hamlin and Drew Barnholtz, and associates Rachel Hirsch, Nicole Kardell, Steven Eichorn, David Yellin, and Jessica Feil. These posts are edited by Jeff Ifrah. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!

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