Move a frog, go to jail

Debra J. Saunders

2/27/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
If the feds had their way, environmental consultant John J. Zentner, 46, would be in jail right now. One of his cell brethren eventually would ask, "What are you in for?" "Moving frogs," he could say. The Orinda, Calif., resident and his company pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of violating the federal Endangered Species Act. He agreed to serve 200 hours of community service, to have his firm pay a fine of $65,000 and to pay a personal fine of $10,000. All for moving some 60 California red-legged frogs and 500 tadpoles from a watercourse to a pond. But that wasn't enough for the hang-em-high Department of Justice. The prosecutor asked a federal magistrate to sentence Zentner to 10 days in jail, because of "the serious nature of the defendant's crime." Yes, the Ribbit Police wanted Zentner to pay a stiffer punishment than what is meted to most first-time drunk drivers, who endanger human lives. Judge Wayne Brazil wisely determined Zentner didn't need to do jail time. Zentner's life of crime began in 1999. Wildlife officials told him that they believed red-legged frogs -- made famous in Mark Twain's story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" -- were on a development site for which he was a consultant. But Zentner told them they were wrong. Later, he failed to notify authorities after his employees told him they had seen said frogs, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Months later he moved the frogs to the pond. "It was arrogant," Zentner noted, even as he said he thought the law allowed him to do so. The Feds argued that Zentner intentionally violated the law to save his client from a six to one year delay in construction. (Zentner says no, but it is easy to see why the Feds would believe someone would rather move frogs than delay development for months.) Zentner's attorney Bill Goodman notes that if his client wanted to expedite development, "There was obviously a blatantly wrong alternative, which was to allow the frogs to be bulldozed into oblivion." Of course, the Feds have to enforce even dumb laws -- but they don't need to over-enforce laws. Zentner's legal fees, fines and community service are punishment aplenty. Especially when court documents indicate that Kermit and his buddies are living large in the pond. After all, if frogs croak free, why should Zentner sit in stir? Is this what Mark Twain would have wanted? Zentner hopes that his punishment serves as a warning to people who don't take the Endangered Species Act seriously. It should. Meanwhile, another worthy result would be if President Bush's call for common sense in government spells an end to such prosecutorial excesses. The name of the department is Justice, but after the way it handled the Zentner case, one is tempted to nickname the department Warts.