Protesters Show Support For Hammond, Fischer in Pebble Mine Case

Photo by Josh Edge, APRN - Anchorage.
Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Protesters gathered in Anchorage on Wednesday in support of Vic Fischer and Bella Hammond.

The crowd was demanding the state call off its efforts to recover $1 million in legal fees from Fischer, Hammond, and their co-plaintiffs in case over the Pebble Mine.

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Chants from a crowd of about 50 protesters gathered near the Atwood Building could be heard from a couple blocks away. They held signs that read, “Shame on Parnell, Don’t Evict Bella Hammond,” and, “Real Alaskans Don’t Bully Their Elders.”

The issue stems from a case Bella Hammond, Vic Fischer – and a group of other plaintiffs – brought against the state regarding the public’s right to know about the Pebble Mine’s exploration work in advance.

The court ruled in favor of the state, and the state and the Pebble Partnership are now trying to collect about $1 million dollars in attorney fees.

State Senator Hollis French, a Democrat from Anchorage and a candidate for Lt. Governor, was among the protesters. He says the action is purely discretionary on the state’s part.

“The attorney general could stop it today if he signed a piece of paper, and I hope he does,” French said. “I hope he rethinks his position and I hope the governor tells him to rethink his position, because going after Bella Hammond and Vic Fischer for legal fees is just wrong.”

According to state attorney Steve Mulder, under Alaska’s “loser pay” law, the state and the Pebble Partnership can seek repayment of up to 30 percent of their attorney fees. But, if a certain set of criteria are met, the group might not end up having to pay.

“If a claimant raises constitutional issues and they don’t have otherwise have a sufficient economic incentive to bring the issue, then they might get relief for having to pay fees,” Mulder said. “There’s also a separate provision that if an award would cause undue hardship, that the judge can give relief.”

Hammond, Fischer and the other plaintiffs are seeking relief, and Mulder says whether or not they meet the necessary criteria is in question.

“In this case, the judge has decided, ‘well, there are fact issues about whether they qualify under either of those two avenues,’ and the judge wants to have a hearing about that,” he said.

The decision to be made next is whether or not Fisher, Hammond and their co-plaintiffs will have to furnish any more information in advance of the hearing.

Senator Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat from Anchorage, says the state’s actions have a chilling effect and could set a dangerous precedent for lawsuits of a similar nature in the future.

“The message that it sends is, ‘if you’re an ordinary Alaskan, don’t you dare stand up and try to challenge what’s happening in the state, because if you do, we’re gonna whack you with a million dollars in legal fees,'” Wielechowski said.

Nick Moe agrees. He ran a write-in campaign for the Anchorage Assembly last spring and says if the group is forced to pay up, it might make Alaskans hesitant to speak up in the future.

“I would definitely think twice, because, you know, I don’t make a lot of money working at a non-profit, yet, you know, our voice should count just as equally as somebody with a lot of extra money that could spend [it] on legal fees,” Moe said.

The case will go before the state Supreme Court in December, where a judge will eventually decide how much money, if any, the group will have to pay.

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Josh is the Statewide Morning News Reporter/Producer for Alaska Public Media | jedge (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8455 | About Josh