Landowners on border say they were shortchanged

Associated Press Modified: October 15, 2012 at 3:46 am •  Published: October 15, 2012
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The fence forced a developer to scrap plans for an entertainment district along the Rio Grande in Brownsville. The government's first offer was $233,300. After a three-year legal battle that almost went to a federal trial, both sides settled for $4.7 million.

But those examples did nothing to help people such as Oscar Ceballos, the owner of a trucking business whose home is on the same half-acre as his fleet of tractor-trailers and his repair garage. Ceballos said he was first offered $1,600 to surrender about 60 feet of his property.

He called the offer ridiculous. But with no money to hire an attorney, he said, he went to a legal-aid clinic that agreed to take his case for free. He joined a group of 28 landowners who demanded a federal jury review their cases — the fiercest opposition to the fence along the entire border.

Ceballos accuses government attorneys of trying to sabotage his case by uncovering his assets and pressing his lawyer about why a free clinic would accept him as a client.

Eventually, Ceballos said, his lawyer told him he had taken the case as far as he could and suggested hiring a more skilled private attorney if he wanted to wring any more money out of the government. By that point, Ceballos had succeeded in getting nearly $40,000 more.

"They wouldn't have paid me anything close to that if I didn't have legal aid," he said. "I guess that gave me a chance to fight the government a little bit. Some other people didn't know or have the chance to fight the government, and they just took what they were offered."

In response to inquiries from the AP, the Justice Department pointed to a 144-page federal guide on land seizures. When taking land, the government strives "to achieve a fair resolution for both the landowner and American taxpayers," spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.

The agency declined to comment on unresolved cases.

Lawyers for the government have argued that the original lowball offers often served merely as down payments to permit the government to take the land quickly so construction could begin. The plan was for full compensation to be paid later after factoring in damage to property and the loss of market value. Some landowners' attorneys concurred with that understanding.

During the earliest stages of the disputes, government attorneys asked that a land commission be created to decide compensation instead of bringing dozens of cases in front of jurors, but a judge rejected that request. No case has ever gone to trial.

Of the 28 landowners who asked for juries, the half who settled received additional checks that were on average 1,200 percent more than the original offer.

"The government finally came to its senses in those cases," said attorney H. Dixon Montague, who negotiated the settlement for the now-dead entertainment district.

Flores signed a final agreement this summer closing his case.

The 75-year-old military veteran said he worked with an attorney for a time but was forced to let him go after being told it would cost $25,000 to get the case inside a courtroom.

Some of his neighbors also gave up fighting.

"You got to figure the cheapest way out," he said.

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Associated Press writers Ramit Plushnick-Masti and Christopher Sherman contributed to this report.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber .



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