Wetlands violator hopes Bush saves him from jail Monday is closing in on William Ellen

The case of William B. Ellen seems simple enough. Convicted last year of filling 86 acres of wetlands on Maryland's Eastern Shore, he is scheduled to go to prison Monday for his crime.

But his case has touched off a bitter debate between landowners and environmentalists over whether someone should be put behind bars for cutting down trees and filling in marshy land. The dispute has reached the White House, where President Bush apparently is mulling whether to pardon Ellen.


Ellen and his supporters contend that the 47-year-old marine engineer from Mathews, Va., should be spared prison, claiming he was a victim of overzealous enforcement of federal wetlands laws. He is scheduled to begin serving six months Monday at a federal penitentiary in Petersburg, Va.

"We are on a full-court press to keep this man from going to the Pen," said Margaret Ann Reigle, founder of the Fairness to Landowners Committee, based in Cambridge. Her group claims to have more than 11,000 members in 38 states.


Ms. Reigle has become Ellen's unpaid publicist, arranging for him to be interviewed in recent weeks by television news programs and newspapers, including The Sun.

"We've got a fundamental moral issue when we start putting dirt-movers and tree-fellers in prison while we've got murderers and dope dealers on the street," she said.

The efforts of Ms. Reigle and others appear to have paid off. Two days ago, less than a week after the Wall Street Journal published an editorial calling for President Bush to commute Ellen's sentence or pardon him, Justice Department lawyers were called to the White House to discuss the case.

Now the other side is swinging into action. Stung by what he calls a "media blitz" on Ellen's behalf, Richard D. Bennett, the U.S. attorney for Baltimore, said yesterday that he and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest plan to go to the White House today to argue against freeing Ellen.

"I have never met an environmental polluter who felt he should go to prison," Mr. Bennett said.

Mr. Gilchrest, whose 1st District includes Dorchester County, where the wetlands were filled, said he believes the federal prosecution of Ellen was appropriate. "If this guy was being unfairly targeted by an overzealous bureaucracy, I would be defending him with my last breath," the Republican congressman said.

When he was elected in 1988, President Bush declared there would be "no net loss" of the marshy, boggy areas once disdained, but now valued for curbing flooding, soaking up pollutants and nurturing dozens of species of fish, waterfowl and rare plants.

Within two years, however, Mr. Bush found himself backpedaling on his pledge when new federal guidelines for identifying wetlands roused an angry outcry from property owners whose land had not been regulated before. The administration launched a controversial effort to rewrite the guidelines, which was shelved only last week.


Scientists and wetlands regulators had warned that the administration plan would open up to development as much as half the nation's wetlands, including universally recognized marshy areas such as Florida's Everglades.

The case involving Ellen, which also ensnared a New York multimillionaire, was billed as the largest criminal wetlands case in U.S. history. After a four-week trial, Ellen was convicted by a U.S. District Court jury in Baltimore in January 1991 of five felony water-pollution charges. He was acquitted of a sixth charge.

The prosecution presented evidence that Ellen, while overseeing construction of a private waterfowl hunting and game preserve near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, repeatedly ignored warnings from environmental officials to stop work and obtain the federal permits needed to fill wetlands. Ellen directed construction crews to fill tidal and freshwater wetlands, to build roads and to carve out a waterfowl pond with bulldozers, witnesses testified.

Ellen's employer, Paul Tudor Jones II, a Wall Street trader who owned the 3,200-acre Dorchester property where the wetlands were filled, avoided trial by pleading guilty in 1990 to a misdemeanor. He paid $2 million in fines and restitution.

Mr. Jones admitted in court that "there were mistakes made. . . . I was negligent." His attorney attributed the incident to Mr. Jones' failure to properly supervise Ellen.

Ellen never testified in his own defense. At his sentencing hearing in April 1991, he said he had been under pressure to avoid construction delays. But he contended that he and Mr. Jones both had consciously decided to avoid development of wetlands, where permits would be needed.


Ellen has reached the end of his legal appeals. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his conviction and sentence, and last month the Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Yesterday, in a telephone interview, Ellen said he hoped President Bush would keep him from going to prison.

"I don't think either Paul Jones or I are guilty of doing anything wrong," he said. He contended that the waterfowl pond he was building did more to help wildlife than did the forested wetlands they bulldozed. He also argued that they were tripped up by the government's shifting definition of what is a wetland.

"We weren't doing this in the dark," he said, noting that he met repeatedly on the project with local and state officials. He also noted that he had worked four years as a wetland regulator for Virginia and had spent another 14 years as a private wetland consultant.

He denied that he had ignored any specific warnings or orders not to destroy wetlands.

"Is this truly conduct that deserves incarceration?" he asked.

"No one was harmed," added Ms. Reigle. "It's not like he shot a bald eagle."


But federal prosecutors counter that Ellen and Ms. Reigle are distorting the facts as laid out in the trial. The wetlands filled have been recognized as such since 1976, they say. It cost $1 million to repair the damage Ellen caused, the prosecutors add, and the area won't be fully restored for 30 years.

"It's one thing to say you don't want someone convicted of wetlands violations to go to jail," said Jane Barrett, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Ellen. But now, she added, "somebody who didn't even take the stand in his own defense is out making up stories. There is no question that this guy knowingly violated the law."

Three other men have served longer prison terms for destroying smaller parcels of wetlands, Ms. Barrett noted. John Poszgai in Pennsylvania got 33 months for filling eight acres. O. C. Mills and his son in Florida got 30 months and 27 months, respectively, for filling five acres.

"Bill Ellen is getting the lightest sentence of anybody," she said.

Environmentalists also defend Ellen's prison sentence.

""If we are going to protect our wetlands, we have to make it clear that illegal destruction of wetlands is not going to be permitted, that it is going to be taken seriously," said Ann Powers, vice president and counsel of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.