OAKLAND, Calif., Jan. 8, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- Well respected estate developer James Tong and Wildlife Management, LLC plead guilty to significantly reduced federal violations after a three year probe by state and federal departments of Fish and Wildlife for alleged environmental violations stemming from the grading of 4 acres of land for 4 homes on their project at Dublin Ranch North.
While Mr. Tong entered his guilty plea to a lone federal misdemeanor charge involving the Endangered Species Act, the vast majority of the criminal allegations against him were previously tossed out by California State Judge Kenneth Burr because he ruled that the allegations were unfounded and "troublesome," said Steven Gruel, Mr. Tong's attorney.
After several days of courtroom testimony from the lead investigator, California Department of Fish and Game Warden Nicole Kozicki, Judge Burr immediately tossed out 18 of Kozicki's claims of violations at the Dublin Ranch North Project.
Significant to Judge Burr's decision to dismiss these charges brought against Tong and Wildlife Management was his finding that Warden Kozicki's testimony was "troublesome" and that much of her testimony contradicted "her own department's definitions" of environmental law, Gruel said.
For example, Judge Burr commented that investigator Kozicki's experience was questionable when she "couldn't define what a stream consisted of" and when specifically asked by the Judge to "define a stream," she could not do so.
A second California State Judge, Judge C. Don Clay, later agreed with Judge Burr and rejected efforts to overturn Judge Burr's reasoned dismissal of the false charges against Mr. Tong.
Mr. Gruel, a former federal prosecutor, considered it "heavy handed" for Kozicki to pile up unfounded charges and noted that she had previously "gotten it wrong" as to her understanding of environmental law.
"In 2007, the District Attorney for Contra Costa County, along with then Attorney General Jerry Brown, also rejected investigator Kozicki's efforts to prosecute another developer for nonexistent violations," Gruel said. "She basically did the same thing here with Mr. Tong," Gruel added.
"Mr. Tong takes full responsibility and apologizes for his errors in judgement," Gruel said, "but Kozicki's piling on bogus charges involving a 4 acre 4 house project, which two Judges found wholly lacking in merit, was overreaching and outrageous."
Gruel also noted that in his 30 years practicing law, which included 16 years as a federal prosecutor investigating organized crime, he has never seen a case where both federal and state prosecutors go after a defendant for these types of charges.
"I see it as unwarranted heavy handedness. The fact that Kozicki was the investigator for both the federal and state cases proves to me that she has issues with developers in general and maybe Mr. Tong in particular," Gruel observed.
Mr. Tong would like to apologize for his error in judgment and the error in judgment of his company," Gruel said. "Although we don't believe that Mr. Tong's or Wildlife Management's behavior resulted in any actual harm to the California Tiger Salamander as alleged, their intention has and always will be to act in strict compliance with the rules."
The Charges Stem From Grading Only 4 Acres At Dublin Ranch North
"To be clear, this case involved a project where only 4 acres had been graded to accommodate 4 residential homes," Gruel stated.
Dublin Ranch North, the property in this case, consists of approximately 157 acres in Dublin, California. In June 2009, the City of Dublin determined that the development of a small portion of Dublin Ranch North may have potential impact on the California Tiger Salamander (CTS), which was classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2004. In November 2010, 127 acres of the property was put into a Conservation easement along with an additional 140 acres for the protection of wildlife, including the California Tiger Salamander. Unfortunately, no part of these 267 acres was accepted by the Department of Fish and Game for mitigation of the 4 acres of grading.
Wildlife Management purchased Dublin Ranch North on May 25, 2011, and began the process of developing a small portion of the property. Two Ohlone Preserve Conservation Bank payment receipts were altered to represent that mitigation credits were purchased for threatened and endangered species on Dublin Ranch North when in fact they did not.
After receiving approval to begin grading activities at Dublin Ranch North, contractors graded about 4 acres from July through December 2012. Thus, the grading activities took place without completing additional surveys for California Tiger Salamander or, in lieu thereof, assuming the existence of salamanders on the property and purchasing mitigation credits to offset any potential impact to salamanders.
"At the time Wildlife Management conducted its activities, there was no evidence that the California Tiger Salamanders actually resided in that particular area of the property – or that the company's actions posed a threat to the species' habitat," Gruel said.
Mr. Tong and Wildlife Management have a long history of development in the Bay Area and have been lauded for finding effective ways to protect wildlife during development. Over the course of developing the 1,500 acre Dublin Ranch project, Tong worked closely with the property owners to set aside over 700 acres for conservation and wildlife preservation.
"The mitigation efforts for the Dublin Ranch project are some of the best in the Tri-Valley area," Gruel said. "This one instance of wrongdoing is not reflective of the high ethical standards that Mr. Tong and Wildlife Management hold themselves to and which their clients and partners have come to expect from them."
"Mr. Tong and Wildlife Management accept full responsibility for the mistakes that were made in this instance and have taken steps to ensure that they will not happen again," Gruel said. "Mr. Tong hopes that the community will continue to support him and his company as they learn from their errors and move into the next chapter of their long history of growth in the Bay Area."
"Mr. Tong's financial restitution, community service and another 107 acres for a conservation easement demonstrates his remorse and sincere efforts to make this right," Gruel stated.
About James Tong & Wildlife Management
James Tong has worked in the Bay Area development industry for 30 years and established Wildlife Management, LLC in 2008. Mr. Tong and his company pride themselves on the strong community relationships they have built through their many giving programs, which have had an enormous public benefit to the area. Throughout Mr. Tong and Wildlife Management's history they have been praised for building schools, firehouses, and community parks, as well as establishing scholarship funds and donating to local causes.
Media Contacts: Sam Singer
Attorney for James Tong
SOURCE Wildlife Management, LLC