Drakes Bay Oyster Company Turns to Koch Brothers-Linked Group



Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which has portrayed itself as a progressive and environmentally sustainable business and has been supported heavily by Democratic US Senator Dianne Feinstein, has joined forces with a secretive group that has ties to the ultra-conservative Koch Brothers and the Republican Party. The secretive group, which calls itself Cause of Action, is leading the legal fight for the oyster company against the Obama administration’s decision late last week to close the oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore and create the first marine wilderness on the West Coast.

Dan Epstein
  • Dan Epstein
Cause of Action is run by Dan Epstein, a former staffer for the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. Epstein also was the lead Republican attorney for the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — which is headed by California GOP Congressman Darrell Issa.

Charles Koch and his brother, David, made billions in the oil and natural gas industries and spent hundreds of millions of dollars this year attempting to defeat President Obama. The Koch Brothers also are the primary financiers of the Tea Party, and have heavily backed ultra-right-wing Republican candidates in recent years.

As for Issa, as head of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he has led a series of investigations into the Obama administration since Republicans regained control of the House in 2010. Issa’s probes, viewed by Democrats as being overly partisan, have included the Fast and Furious scandal, have dominated Republican talking points, and have provided regular fodder for Fox News.

Despite the ties to the Koch brothers and the Republican Party, Mary Beth Hutchins, a spokeswoman for Epstein’s group Cause of Action, maintained in an interview with the Express that the group is a “nonpartisan” charity. Hutchins, however, declined to reveal the identity of the group’s donors. Cause of Action has yet to file a federal tax return with the IRS, so it’s finances are not yet public; Hutchins said the group formed in 2011 and received its 501 (c)(3) status earlier this year.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Hutchins said Cause of Action was helping Drakes Bay Oyster Company, owned by rancher Kevin Lunny, free of charge.

This is also not the first time that Lunny has received help from Issa. Last year, Issa strongly criticized the National Park Service for its contention that the oyster company’s lease at Point Reyes should not be renewed. Issa also instructed his Oversight Committee to launch an investigation. Issa and his committee’s actions were viewed by many Democrats, including North Bay Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, as just another attempt by Republicans to embarrass the Obama administration. The oyster company’s fight against the park service also has been taken up by Fox News.

Cause of Action, meanwhile, has been criticized by progressives for sending threatening letters to nonprofits that fight against obesity and tobacco-use. According to a report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the letters were viewed as attempts to intimidate and quash liberal causes.

Cause of Action’s fight on behalf of Drakes Bay Oyster Company also is viewed in the environmental community as part of a right-wing effort to privatize public land. In a federal lawsuit filed against Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar earlier this week on behalf of the oyster company, Cause of Action argued that Salazar’s decision to not renew oyster farm’s lease amounted to “an illegal taking” of private property — even though the oyster farm was operating on public land and its owner Lunny knew when he bought the farm in 2005 that the park service had no intention of re-upping his lease after its November 30, 2012 expiration date.

Cause of Action also argues in its suit that Salazar was required by law to conduct a comprehensive environmental review of the oyster farm’s impacts on Point Reyes before deciding to not extend Lunny’s lease. Although the park service did conduct such a review, Cause of Action contends that it was inadequate. Salazar, however, said that his decision to not renew the oyster farm’s lease was not based on the environmental impacts of the oyster farm and instead was based on existing law and policy concerning commercial enterprises on land that had been designated by Congress to become federally protected wilderness — as was the case with Drakes Estero in Point Reyes. Salazar also contends that a full environmental review is not required when making a decision on whether to renew such a lease.

However, if Cause of Action wins its fight, it could force the federal government to complete full environmental reviews every time a private company wants to renew its lease on national parkland designated to become wilderness. Ironically, for Republicans, such an outcome could prove to be quite expensive for taxpayers. The environmental review conducted for Drakes Bay Oyster Company has already cost the federal government more than $3 million, according to Amy Trainer, executive director of The Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, a group that has strongly opposed renewing the oyster farm’s lease.

In fact, the prohibitively high costs associated with completing such environmental reviews could prompt cash-strapped public agencies to renew leases for private companies on public land rather than spend the money. “What we’re talking about is defacto privatization,” Trainer said.

Indeed, Cause of Action’s co-counsel, the Southern California law firm Stoel Rives, argued in a letter last month to Salazar that it believed it would be legally okay for him to renew Lunny’s lease at Drakes Estero without a full environmental review — but not okay for him to let the lease expire without such a review.