The Robert Womack Case
More than a decade ago, Robert Womack, his family, and friends were harassed by officials in Amador County (California) over a paperwork violation, while the county and other government agencies have not been so much as fined over greater environmental violations. This site is the focal point for an effort to make sure that public officials live by the same laws they make us live by, and for restoring justice to property owners in California.
Note: Neither I nor Bill Wattenburg were attempting to claim that Mr. Womack is innocent of the charges against him—that was for the courts to decide. What we are concerned about is that citizens not be forced to abide by laws that government officials break freely and frequently, and that the laws are not abused by charging people with “crimes” that have had no detrimental effect on other people or even the environment. We are simply seeking justice, in its most basic form—equal and fair treatment (for citizens and public officials alike) under the laws of this land.
This Website documents one of the most outrageous and vicious abuses of our legal justice system that you will find anywhere. It shows how Nazi-mentality prosecutors are using the so-called environmental laws and regulations to charge selected citizens with manufactured felonies. With the full blessings of our courts, these roving prosecutors use Gestapo tactics to intimidate and blackmail helpless defendants until they agree to pay huge fines and plead guilty to violations. All we knew about Mr. Womack is that initial press reports said he refused to be blackmailed. He demanded his day in court. See how the Gestapo army then went to work to assault his home, family, and friends—while the superior court judges who authorized this smiled on the sidelines.
Removing A Gas Tank Warrants 21 Felonies?
Robert Womack was charged with 21 felonies (2 of which were dropped by the grand jury) as a result of removing an underground storage tank from an unused gasoline station he bought; all because he didn’t get the right county permit (he had a city permit). The extent of the charges and later developments seem very excessive for the alleged crime.
Worse yet, the prosecution of Mr. Womack has been occurring during the same time that an actual leak of toxic material—raw sewage—has been occasionally backing up and spilling into an elementary school in the county (Ione Elementary School). Such spills occurred at least three times during 1999. None of the people claiming that Mr. Womack violated important environmental rules by failing to file the right permits has even suggested that anyone or any agency be prosecuted—much less fined—for the sewage leak.
It also appears that Amador County was at one point operating several underground storage tanks at the local airport in direct violation of state and federal laws requiring them to be replaced or upgraded. We believe that double standards like this are among the worst transgressions a government can make against its citizens.
The State Didn’t Intend Laws To Punish Like This
A high-ranking official in the California State Water Quality Control Board responded with the following after Bill Wattenburg described the case to him:
“The penalties under the law were never intended to punish someone for removing a tank that has already been upgraded to EPA standards—especially if it is empty and of no danger to anyone. These laws were intended to get people to upgrade their old tanks, not punish them for doing it. I’m not even sure it has to be demolished. Sounds sort of wasteful to destroy a new EPA-approved tank. They are very expensive…”
Our concern over Mr. Womack’s treatment by one of the key prosecutors only worsened when we checked on his past activities and discovered that he has been known to harass other elderly citizens over insignificant environmental concerns before.
Deputy District Attorney David J. Irey is a special environmental prosecutor (on loan to Amador County from San Joaquin County’s Environmental Prosecutions Unit). Some of his past cases include:
- Read about David Irey’s prosecution of Dorothy Sandberg over fuel tanks abandoned in the ’50s or ’60s, a case that was only completely resolved one month before her death at the age of 71.
- Read a Modesto Bee article detailing two years of Irey’s prosecution of Dorothy Sandberg. She received a parcel of land and building in her divorce settlement that had previously been used as a gasoline station, and had two underground fuel tanks still on the property.
- David Irey also went after some dairy farmers, eventually winning an $80,000 judgment (ever wonder why milk is so expensive?).
- You should also read about the San Joaquin County board of supervisors wanting to freeze funding for his activities, and likening his tactics to those of Germany’s W.W.II “Gestapo”.
- Despite his enthusiasm for prosecuting Mr. Womack for removing a tank, David Irey has not even bothered prosecuting an Arco station that was willfully violating the underground storage tank laws.
- An attorney from Roseville, CA, informs us that David Irey admitted collusion in another, unrelated case.
Why is it that Mr. Irey seems to only attack the little guy, and doesn’t bother big businesses with their deep pockets and expensive lawyers?
We have posted the most important court documents relating to this case, including the two affidavits in support of search warrants for Mr. Womack’s home, the grand jury transcripts (all 2,000+ pages), the original indictment, and court motions.
Also available is a collection of letters and other public documents covering various aspects of the case, including:
- Official proof that Amador County was in direct violation of EPA rules regarding the use and replacement of old fuel tanks
- Bill Wattenburg’s letter to Amador County DA Todd Riebe demanding that he take enforcement action on environmental violations by the county itself.
- A letter from Mr. Womack’s attorney refuting some of CHP investigator Russell Moore’s claims.
We have posted (with their gracious permission) nearly all articles that the paper has published about the case. The many articles include:
- A summary of the events so far
- A description of how and why Mr. Womack’s son’s property was searched and dug up (breaking the water main twice in the process).
- Examples of conflicting testimony in the grand jury transcripts, on the part of Mr. Irey and Mr. Moore.
This section includes letters to the editor that have appeared in the Amador Ledger Dispatch, including:
- A letter from Rick Paul’s fiancé about the apparent intimidation of him in response to his asking for public documents from Amador County
- Letters from several area residents pointing out underhanded actions by some officials.
The Story of the Tank (a.k.a Gastankgate)
Robert Womack bought a piece of property in Jackson, CA that had previously been an Exxon service station. Having decided to use the property for other things, he decided to remove an underground fuel tank. This tank was less than ten years old, and met all of the current (some say excessive) regulations for their construction.
Womack apparently made a deal to buy the service station provided that there were no environmental problems. He then proceeded to apply for and pay for the demolition permit from the city of Jackson. He carried out the job over the next two days. He dug up the 2,000 gallon tank and gave it away to someone who hauled it away.
(Based on the grand jury transcripts, there is some confusion over whether Womack gave away the perfectly safe, EPA approved tank or hauled it away himself. That is not the point here. If he committed some paperwork violation that is far less serious than what county and state agency officials have committed everywhere, why has he been attacked by a Gestapo army of bureaucrats in the outrageous and vulgar fashion demonstrated by the public documents posted below.)
The most important aspect of this case is that a few years earlier, the owner of the service station had gotten a permit from the city of Jackson to remove the original old tank and replace it with a new, IPA-approved, double-walled tank. The county bureaucrats did not object. No county permits were required, no charges were filed.
So, the Womack service station was in compliance with the environmental laws while many others, including Amador County facilities were not. It has been reported that while they were spending a hundred-thousand dollars to prosecute Womack, the county continued to use the old fuel tanks at the county airport up and until February 1, 1999. After December 22, 1998, no one is allowed to use or fuel old underground tanks that have not been updated and approved. (Bill Wattenburg reported this illegal operation on KGO Radio 810 on the night of Jan. 31, 1999. County officials acknowledged their activity and quickly closed down the tanks the following day. The same county officials who supported the six-month assault on Womack were most likely fully aware of the county’s complete defiance of both California and federal laws. If true, these are real felony violations—the same violations for which the county officials have struggled to charge Womack with.
The old tanks at the airport (and maybe other county and state installations) could be leaking. They are a real environmental threat according to the EPA and environmental officials.
After the tests had been completed, the county or Deputy DA David Irey ordered the tank destroyed. Even though they were intent on prosecuting Mr. Womack, they proceeded to destroy evidence, an act that is extremely frowned upon in our courts, and often leads to dismissal of the charges. The reason they ordered the tank destroyed is not currently known, but you may be able to draw your own conclusions.
Officials move on to Mr. Womack’s son
After serving two search warrants on Robert Womack’s house twice, David Irey and Russell Moore asked for and received a warrant to search his son’s (Luke Womack) ranch property, some distance away from his father’s. They claimed to be looking for evidence that debris from the removed tank had been buried on Luke’s property. According to one person that called into Wattenburg’s show, they used large excavators to dig up the property, and by the time they were done had left one or more holes (several feet deep), several piles of dirt, and had broken a water main that serviced Luke’s property, leaving him without running water.
Officials harassing those in search of fairness
Several recent incidents are good examples of the bully tactics that Mr. Irey and his associates are using to intimidate those who seek to shine a light on his practices and expose illegal activities by Amador County. The latest is described below:
- Robert Womack’s friend arrested
- Rick Paul (a friend of Mr. Womack’s who has been supporting him and has also been instrumental in exposing environmental crimes by Amador County) was arrested on an out-of-county warrant from 1992, apparently in an effort to silence him. The original matter had already been dealt with and was supposed to have been expunged from the record. According to the original arrest warrant (which I have seen and read) was based on a complaint of his step-daughter’s that he slapped the back of her left hand. Rick was arrested after asking about the county’s illegal operation of non-compliant gasoline tanks at the airport.
Local governments as guilty as Mr. Womack
The charges against Robert Womack basically allege that he did not have all of the proper permits to remove the modern double-walled underground storage tank (he did have a city permit for the demolition of the service station) and that he and/or David Mason III (the previous owner) attempted to get retroactive permits after the removal. Here is what has come to light recently:
- ARCO Station Pumping Around Tank Law
- From the Modesto Bee
- An ARCO station in San Joaquin County is violating the underground storage tank law by operating tanks at at least one station that has not been approved by the state of California. According to this article, David Irey has not taken any enforcement action against ARCO.
- Amador County’s Airport was illegally operating non-compliant fuel tanks
- The Westover Field airport has several underground storage tanks (one 1,000 gallon single-walled tank and one 4,000 gallon single-wall tank) that were supposed to be upgraded or shut down by December 22, 1998. Instead, they continued in operation until at least February 1, 1999, when The Amador County Land Use Agency sent the airport a letter directing the airport to “secure the pumps at once and submit documentation on the emptying and cleaning of the tanks in preparation for closure or upgrading.”
This attack on Mr. Womack is not an isolated case. In fact, it is part of a much larger effort to prosecution of “environmental crimes” that appear to be designed to fill the coffers of state and local agencies with the resulting fines.
- How we became involved in the case
- Participants: This page lists the people involved on both sides of the case, and will soon be updated to reflect the outcome of the case.
- California EPA Abusive and Fraudulent Practices
One of the most upsetting things about this case is that David Irey and friends are wasting time harassing Mr. Womack (whose tank has been proven not to be contaminated or leaking) while vast numbers of leaking tanks and other pollution sources remain. Why waste time harassing someone for missing one small piece of paperwork, when that person has produced absolutely no pollution? Look at the lists of polluters for yourself: