Texas mayors and business leaders filed a class-action lawsuit Friday alleging Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff hoodwinked landowners into waiving their property rights for construction of a fence along the Mexican border.
Members of the Texas Border Coalition said Chertoff did not fairly negotiate compensation with landowners for access to their land for six-month surveys to choose fence sites. The coalition of mayors and business and community leaders is seeking an injunction to block work on the fence.
They also want a federal judge to rescind all the agreements with landowners and to order Chertoff to start again. The department has sought and won access from hundreds of landowners to determine where to build the fence and other barriers to illegal border crossings.
The coalition's attorney, Peter Schey, said Chertoff violated a 1996 immigration law that requires fair negotiation with landowners.
The lawsuit also names Robert Janson, director of Asset Management at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as a defendant.
'Foundation of lawlessness'
It was filed with U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, a Bush nominee who presided in the criminal case of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.
"They hoodwinked property owners" into waiving their property rights, Schey said.
"This whole thing has been built on a foundation of lawlessness," he said.
Landowners were visited by officials from Homeland Security, Army Corps of Engineers and Customs and Border Patrol. But the government didn't send anyone to advise the owners' of their property rights, Schey said. Some landowners accepted offers of $100 for access to their land.
Government denies doing wrong
The Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly denied allegations of unfair negotiations, saying it has bent over backward to work with landowners.
The agency wants to build about 353 miles of fence by year's end to bring total fencing, walls and barriers to about 670 miles.
"This is just a delay tactic. I can't imagine this has any merit," said Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner, who had not yet seen the lawsuit.