Six-figure incomes are the norm for environmental litigators

By on January 1, 2014


Environmental groups have mounted a legal challenge to a parallel replacement for the Bonner Bridge. (Voice)

Two years ago we looked at doing a story on how much money people are making by litigating environmental cases here on the Outer Banks and across the Southeast.

News analysis

We shelved the article for reasons I no longer remember, but recently, local stories have appeared on the funding, salaries and even compensation to board members of the Southern Environmental Law Center and their clients.

The figures are public record because non-profits file a federal tax form 990, which lists salaries of key employees as well as income and expense sources.

I focused on the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) because they are engaged in four issues locally: the closure of federal beaches along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Bonner Bridge replacement over Oregon Inlet, the Mid-Currituck Bridge and most recently, a sweeping redefinition of “critical habitat” for loggerhead sea turtles that may extend the federal regulatory reach to beaches currently managed at the state, county or municipal level.

SELC is a law firm, thus its primary salaries are paid to staff attorneys and administrative personnel.

The general public usually overestimates salaries earned by attorneys, especially in small towns and rural environments. In reality, it is not unusual to see many attorneys, similar to “family doctors,” earning incomes that barely breach six figures in this region.

While many may think the salaries described in the accompanying charts are not excessive, I believe the story here is a comparison to the gap between what people are earning from litigating for so-called environmental causes and the incomes of the residents whose livelihoods, already fragile in places such as Hatteras Island, can be ffected by the litigation.

One of the litigants that hired SELC on the Bonner Bridge and beach closure issues is the Defenders of Wildlife.

According to its 2012 Form 990 tax return, President Jamie Rappaport Clark had a total compensation, including benefits, of $330,088. Outgoing CEO and president Roger Schlickeisen earned $308,565 before stepping down.

Over at the National Audubon Society, President and CEO David Yarnold pulled in $508,576 in total compensation, and of the 24 other “highly compensated” individuals, no one makes less than $150,000, eight make over $200,000 and two others take in over $300,000.

To add some perspective, Audubon had total revenues in 2012 of $96 million and the Defenders of Wildlife, about $25 million.


Staff compensation for the Southern Environmental Law Center. (IRS

Turning to the Southern Environmental Law Center, we analyzed returns for the five fiscal years ending March 31 from 2008 through 2012. For comparison, the SELC salaries are paid from an organization that had total revenues of just under $14 million, significantly less than Audubon or Defenders of Wildlife.

Yet, salaries at the top and among staff attorneys and state directors are as high as those paid by the two larger entities.

Starting with SELC’s president, Frederick S. Middleton III, the return shows he earned $304,649 with total compensation of $343,257 for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2012, more than the salary of the Defender of Wildlife’s president, even though she oversees a budget twice as large.

In the prior year, Middleton was paid $210,538 in salary and collected a total compensation package worth $276,146, a 24 percent annual increase.

At the end of fiscal year 2007, Middleton’s total compensation was $239,288, resulting in a 43 percent increase in compensation over the last five years.

According to Forbes magazine, Middleton’s 2011 salary places him just under the $394,000 threshold for entry into the much-maligned “Top 1 percent.”

Likewise, SELC’s deputy director, Jeffrey M. Gleason has experienced similarly large increases in earnings and benefits.

During fiscal year 2007, Gleason’s a base salary was $156,396; for the year ending March 31, 2012, it had risen to $207,354, a 33 percent increase.

Gleason’s total compensation last year was $226,762.

Of more interest to Dare County’s residents may be the salary of Derb Carter, who is the director of the law center’s North Carolina office and the organizations most visible face locally.

In 2007, Carter’s base salary was $127,541 with other benefits of $20,145, for a total package of $147,686.

By the end of fiscal year 2011, Carter’s base salary had risen to $140,624. Adding in bonuses, retirement and other benefits, Carter was remunerated $176,303 last fiscal year, an increase of 20 percent over the past five years of SELC’s tax filings.


Highly compensated employees at SELC. (IRS)

The remainder of SELC’s management team does equally well in compensation.

Marie Hawthorne, the director of development for SELC, had total compensation of $163,183, including a base salary of $126,458, and David Pope, the director for Georgia earned $162,026 in salary and benefits.

The total compensation for the organization’s top four attorneys comes to approximately $145,000 each.

Treasurer Holly Hueston was paid $138,448 during fiscal year 2011, and even SELC’s secretary earned $75,560 in total compensation, including a base salary of $64,508 for what the tax return describes as a 42-hour average workweek.

According to the 2006-2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for an individual worker in Dare County is $28,997 per year and the median household income is $53,889.

For the Buxton zip code (27920) those figures are $18,920 for the median individual worker and $28,847 for the median family income. For Avon, the median worker’s salary is $21,000 and the median household income is $55,455.

People’s opinions on the salaries earned by these environmental crusaders may vary as to whether they are excessive or not.

But the incomes and lifestyles of the people on Hatteras Island, who are directly affected by the actions of the three organizations, are well below the compensation one can earn by challenging beach access and new bridges.




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