SEPTEMBER 28, 1995— WASHINGTON, DC
Serial No. 104-39
STATEMENT OF HON. THOMAS W. EWING, A U.S. REPRESENTATIVE FROM ILLINOIS
Mr. Ewing. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I really appreciate the opportunity to speak here today on this controversial issue. While I am not here to specifically discuss the Wild Bird Protection Act, I am going to discuss the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's enforcement of bird protection laws in general.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with a dream catcher, they consist of a hoop with beads hanging from the bottom and feathers surrounding the hoop. According to Native American lore, the hoop was supposed to catch bad dreams and funnel good dreams toward the sleeper's head through the beads. These items can be found in virtually any craft store in the country.
Peg Bargon was thrilled with the opportunity to represent Monticello and all of Central Illinois in preparing a gift for the First Lady. The gift was presented to Mrs. Clinton. Mrs. Clinton then sent Peg Bargon a letter thanking her and explaining what a great addition the dream catcher made in the White House and that she was equally proud that it represented Native American culture.
This story was picked up by one of the local newspapers in my district and accompanied by a photo of Mrs. Clinton being presented the gift. One of the agents in the Springfield, Illinois, office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noticed the picture and specifically took note of the feathers adorning the dream catcher. An elaborate sting operation was set up with an agent posing as someone interested in buying a dream catcher.
Also, Mrs. Bargon sells dream catchers in a local arts and crafts store run by two sisters. These women were also targeted in the sting operation. Finally the agent moved in and came to Peg Bargon's door armed with a search warrant and searched her home. They also showed up at the craft store, locked the doors and forced the employees to sit there while they were searching the entire store, a search that lasted several hours.
These women were arrested and charged with violating various bird protection laws. They were not out killing birds for their feathers. To the contrary, she would find various feathers while walking through the woods by her house. They offered a plea bargain. In the exchange for a guilty plea, prosecutors would recommend the most lenient penalty allowed under law. Peg Bargon pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. She faces up to six months home confinement and up to $20,000 in fines as a result of this plea. No charges have been made against the two store owners.
This issue has set the Fish and Wildlife Service in Central Illinois back fifty years. Every newspaper in my district came out against the agency. Every piece of mail I have received on this issue has been in support of Peg Bargon. At a time when there is unprecedented scrutiny of law enforcement, it is exactly this type of operation that feeds the discontent of the American people. To get an idea of how ridiculous this situation got, the agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service was quoted in the press as saying that technically the First Lady was in violation of the same laws that these ladies were.
We need a little common sense to be injected into both the statutes and the enforcement of such statutes. Now I don't think that Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted for this event. My complaint is not about bird protection laws, but the overzealousness of the Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement. Nobody here wants to see birds hunted down for their feathers or otherwise endangered for any commercial reason, but to treat a bird feather like heroin or enriched uranium is preposterous. If you stop and pick up a blue jay feather, and I have in my own yard, that is laying in the yard or along the street, you are guilty of a felony because of the strict liability of the law.
The fact that the Fish and Wildlife agent locked these women inside their store while they were conducting the search is unconscionable. These women would be like your mother, your sister, certainly not criminals. The other day at a local picnic a 90-year-old lady said to me almost in tears that she had picked up a bird feather and how frightened she was that she might be arrested.
Monticello, Illinois is a small town that is as typical of mid America, law-abiding America as any place in the world, and to have this kind of sting operation in that community is just unbelievable. People in small towns like Monticello respect the law and in return they expect to have respect. We need a more common sense approach, because it is the poachers that Eire the most significant threat that we should be concentrating on stopping, not the activities of law-abiding citizens. Now a simple warning from the agency, I am sure, would have stopped any illegal action in this community.
I would suggest that we focus on changing the strict liability statute for simple possession and leave it in place for those people who are target — who are poaching. This is a more responsible and reasonable approach to this problem.
Mr. Chairman, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to come here and to share this story. It is more than just a story of people in my district. Peg Bargon pled guilty because this was destroying her life, her marriage, her family and she had to get out of a bad situation. She couldn't fight it any longer. We shouldn't treat our people like that.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.