Thursday, July 12, 2007

U.S. border official says Bush can't fire him

U.S. border official says Bush can't fire him
Associated Press Writer

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- The head of an obscure agency that prunes trees along the U.S.-Canada border says he's entitled to a job for life under international treaties, despite President Bush's attempt to fire him.

In a letter dated Tuesday, the White House informed Dennis Schornack he had been fired as commissioner of the International Boundary Commission and the International Joint Commission.

But Schornack plans to fight the firing in federal court. Even though he was appointed by Bush in 2002, Schornack says the language of an 80-year-old treaty makes it clear he can't be removed from the boundary office.

"It says I can only leave in a coffin or if I hand in my resignation," Schornack said Wednesday.

Schornack's tussle with the Bush administration comes a few months after he began warning a Washington state retired couple that a concrete wall in their backyard was encroaching on a buffer zone along the border with Canada.

The homeowners, Herbert and Shirley-Ann Leu, live in the tiny border town of Blaine. In the Leus' neighborhood, the international boundary is marked by a drainage ditch; their neighbors across the street are Canadians.

In April, with the help of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, the Leus sued Schornack. They asked a federal judge to stop the commission from removing the wall, arguing Schornack had no standing to impose a 10-foot buffer zone on private property.

The Justice Department took up the defense in U.S. District Court in Seattle, but Schornack also hired private counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based commission.

The White House and Justice Department declined comment on Schornack's claims Wednesday, citing personnel policy and the ongoing legal dispute.

The Joint Commission is a Canadian and U.S. board that oversees boundary waters issues. The Boundary Commission is the border's caretaker, enforcing the construction-free "vista" that extends for 10 feet on either side of the line.

Schornack, a lifelong Republican and longtime aide to former Michigan Gov. John Engler, was appointed to the offices by Bush in 2002. The job pays about $135,000 annually, Schornack said.

The commissions' U.S. offices are minuscule. Besides Schornack, there are four other employees. Until the dispute with the Leus, he said the boundary caretaking job was not very taxing.

"You had to write a couple of reports, occasionally inspect the boundary, decide how to spend the budget on a few projects," Schornack said. "And that's it. Not that hard."

Schornack said his problems began when the Leus' case landed in the hands of Justice Department lawyers who "are on basically a mission to pare back what they see as government intrusion into private property."

"I'm not an ideologue, and it seemed to me that I was being demanded to adopt the ideology of the Justice Department," he said.

Schornack said he tried to be sensitive to the Leus' concerns, but maintained that they should have known building near the border would carry restrictions.

Brian Hodges, the Leus' Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer, said Schornack was being far too heavy-handed.

"It's stranger than fiction," Hodges said. "Commissioner Schornack's hardheaded approach unfortunately justifies people's worst fears about government."