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Haleck family petitions fed court for DOI secretary to intercede in Naumati land dispute

The Haleck family’s legal battle with the American Samoa Government over its plans to develop more than 20 acres of Naumati property at the Ottoville Low Rain Forest has landed in federal court in Washington D.C. with a complaint filed against Kenneth L. Salazar, in his capacity as U.S. Interior Department secretary, who has official jurisdiction over the territory.

Plaintiffs in the case filed Apr. 5 and demanding a jury trial, are Cathie Haleck-Paala; David Otto Haleck; Ernest Haleck; and Otto Vince Haleck, Jr.  Plaintiffs are represented by the Washington D.C. based law-firm Williams & Connolly LLP, according to the 32-page complaint.

 The suit comes after years of the family trying to develop its 23.25 acres of land (labeled in the complaint as the Naumati 23 acres) in the Ottoville Lowland Forest. The local government has denied land use permit requests several times, although ASG did offer several years ago to purchase this land parcel from the Haleck family.

According to the complaint, the Haleck family — for more than 65 years — has occupied the land at the center of this case and for more than 30 years the land has been duly registered with the ASG Office of Registrar.

Yet for the last 20 years, the territorial government and the DOI have denied the Halecks any economic use whatsoever of their land, the complaint alleges, adding that the family has been denied the right to use or develop the land and neither the federal government nor ASG will purchase the land from them.

These refusals to allow the Halecks any economic benefit for over two decades have taken numerous forms, including that ASG has repeatedly agreed in principle to purchase or to make an offer to purchase, the land, but has failed to come up with the purchase price or otherwise follow through — all the while denying the Halecks any opportunity to develop it on their own, the plaintiffs allege.

Additionally, ASG has  refused to consider a Land Use Permit Application submitted by the Halecks by placing a “purportedly general moratorium on all development within a larger tract of land of which the Halecks’ property is a subset”.

The complaint further alleges that ASG has denied another Haleck-submitted permit, citing a “threat of annihilation” to “this critical habitat” — without an offer to purchase the property.  Additionally, the High Court, “at the instigation of the ASG, issued a criminal contempt citation against David Haleck, forbidding him to develop his own land.”

The complaint revealed that the family, in March of last year, “confronted the Secretary of Interior with this demonstrated two-decade pattern of injustice and petitioned the Secretary to instruct the High Court to vacate its decision and direct ASG to allow the Halecks to use and develop their land, or grant them just compensation.”

Last September, Interior Assistant Secretary of Insular Areas, Anthony Babauta responded, saying that the letter had been referred to the Office of Insular Affairs to resolve in coordination with the DOI’s Office of the Solicitor.

“While we take seriously the issues you have raised, the Department of Interior has a strong commitment to promote self-government in American Samoa,” according to a copy of the letter included as an exhibit in the complaint.

“It is the department’s policy to respect the right of the American Samoa Government to control its internal affairs, including its courts’ authority to operate within their jurisdiction and authority,” the letter says. “As a result, we believe that legal actions, such as the one involving title to land in this case, are best handled by the judicial system.”

Copies of the letter were sent to Gov. Togiola Tulafono and Chief Justice Michael Kruse.

According to the complaint, the Halecks brought this action to the federal court, challenging the Interior Secretary's decision to approve the taking of the Halecks’ real property by the ASG and/or the High Court without just compensation, and of the Secretary’s decision to deny the Halecks due process of law and equal protection.

The defendants petitioned the federal court for an order and judgment mandating that the Interior Secretary direct the ASG to either purchase the Naumati 23 Acres property and justly compensate the plaintiffs or issue development permits to plaintiffs for the property.

Additionally, to mandate the defendant to direct the High Court to vacate its order regarding plaintiffs’ property rights in the ASG v. Haleck case, or the defendant annul the High Court order pursuant to his powers as representative of the President of the United States with jurisdiction over the territorial government.

The complaint is also asking the federal court to grant plaintiffs their attorneys’ fees and costs and other such relief as may be just and suitable including without limitation ancillary relief.

And in accordance with federal rules of civil procedure, plaintiffs “hereby demand a trial by jury on all issues triable by jury.”

Plaintiff’s attorneys say copies of the complaint have been served on Salazar as well as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.