News: Digging In

Woman takes on mining company to protect free speech

Mar 14, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Doug Trapp

Jennifer Warner says she is suing to stop a corporation from intimidating citizens who oppose a mine in their community.

It's difficult to find people in Boone County willing to talk about Hilltop Basic Resources, a family-owned, Cincinnati-based concrete company.

It might have something to do with the wave of subpoenas issued more than a year ago.

Late last month Jennifer Warner filed a civil rights lawsuit against Hilltop and its attorney, alleging the company purposely abused the legal system to scare her and others from opposing plans for a mine.

In August 2000, the Boone County Fiscal Court — the equivalent of a county commission in Ohio — unexpectedly rejected Hilltop's application for an underground limestone mine.

Everyone had thought the four-member fiscal court would approve Hilltop's mining proposal, according to Warner.

"We all thought it was a done deal," she says.

But what seemed inevitable fell apart when one of the court's members abstained to avoid a conflict of interest, another offered a surprise no vote and a third refused to be the person who would have brought mining to Boone County.

Ramming the opposition

A few weeks later, Boone County Sheriff's deputies served subpoenas to 11 people who had spoken against the proposal and to two others, including Warner, who had campaigned against it.

Issued in connection with Hilltop's appeal, the subpoenas demanded the 13 residents turn over letters, handwritten notes, phone records and personal calendars related to the zoning application. Hilltop's attorney, Bill Robinson of Covington, wanted to know if the 13 residents had communicated with the fiscal court outside of public hearings.

But the real purpose of the subpoenas was to intimidate mining opponents into submission, according to Warner. She says Robinson could have sent the subpoenas through certified mail but paid for a deputy instead.

Robinson, who is also a defendant in Warner's civil-rights suit, says he did nothing wrong.

"Everything that was done was pursuant to and authorized by court order and we are confident we will be vindicated in this litigation," he says.

The same goes for Kevin Sheehan, Hilltop's executive vice president.

"Hilltop Basic Resources believes the allegations in the complaint are without merit and we look forward to being exonerated," Sheehan says.

Hilltop Basic Resources put a lot of effort into convincing nearby residents their mine would be better than rival Martin Marietta's proposal. Hilltop hired Dan Pinger Public Relations to prepare information packets for a presentation at a hotel.

Martin Marietta, better known as a defense contractor than a mining company, had wanted to open a mine in the same area since the early 1990s.

In 1997, not long after Warner and her husband David moved from Illinois, a neighbor put a flier in their mailbox. Residents didn't care for the 635 trucks that would be needed to haul limestone, the blasting that would rattle homes or the dust that would settle on everything.

The opposition grew from core group of 10 or 20 into Residents Against Mining (RAM), a well-informed network that used e-mail to keep updated, researched other mine operations and raised money for their campaign. The group collected 1,300 signatures against the Martin Marietta mine. About 850 people attended a public hearing.

After the county rejected Martin Marietta's proposal, Hilltop said it would limit blasting to two-hour periods, blast underground to control dust and use barges to keep additional trucks off the roads.

"Hilltop's (proposal) was vastly better," Warner says. "But it was still a mine."

Afraid to speak in public
The 13 people Hilltop subpoenaed didn't even know each other.

One man had never before spoken at a public hearing. Warner called him after the subpoenas were issued, and he wanted nothing to do with their group from that day on. Warner figures he'll never speak at a public hearing again.

"And that's the reason I'm doing this," she says.

Reference librarian Aimee Boese, who moved to North Carolina last summer, says she's also thought twice about speaking at public meetings since being subpoenaed.

"They advertise those meetings," she says. "They want people to speak."

Several of those subpoenaed hired the same attorney for their depositions. The attorney advised them to turn over most of the documents Robinson sought. Warner broke from the group and hired attorney Edwin Kagin of Union, Ky.

Robinson had said Warner's deposition would last 12 hours, but Kagin ended it after 20 minutes, refusing to have her surrender names and e-mail addresses of RAM members.

Kagin says he has never seen such an abuse of subpoenas in his 30 years of practicing law.

"Robinson has cost some of these people thousands of dollars," Kagin says.

But Warner's lawsuit isn't just about money, according to Kagin. It's about intimidation.

"You just can't have some lawyer for any reason going after whoever is in a political organization," he says.

RAM has a constitutional right to meet and organize opposition to a mine. Membership lists, among other items, are privileged information, Kagin says.

So far Warner is alone in suing Hilltop. She believes others are waiting to see how she does.

"I'm disappointed the others didn't join me," she says.

Boese is supporting Warner — from a distance.

"If I was still living in Kentucky, my name would be right there next to Jen's," she says. "I am still considering it."

First Farm Inn, Warner's bed and breakfast, sits on Stevens Road, a narrow, curved stretch of blacktop connecting old farms. On the front porch of her 130-year-old house, she rocks in a chair her guests use to relax. Eight horses occupy a field next to a red barn that is as old as the house.

She exudes determination. Warner believes she was wronged through "pure harassment and intimidation."

While many others are walking on eggshells, Warner is readying for what she sees as a fight to keep corporations from using money to bully citizens they don't like.

"I don't want it to ever happen again," she says. ©