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Naked City

PIPE Down

By Dan Oko, Fri., Sept. 29, 2000

Call him naive, but activist Jeff Heckler says he's heartbroken that a handshake and a check for a thousand dollars apparently didn't mean more to the man he hired last year to build his anti-pipeline Web site. Heckler has filed a civil suit against Chris Saunders, a former colleague he had employed to build a site for the Protecting Individuals Protecting the Environment (PIPE) Coalition. PIPE is seeking damages equal to the $1,000 paid to Saunders for building the site, plus up to $10,000 to cover the cost of a new site, and punitive damages.

The site was supposed to inform people about the alleged dangers associated with Longhorn Pipeline's plan to transport gasoline from Houston to El Paso. But at the end of last year, the Web site was changed. For several weeks, it featured links to articles critical of the coalition; eventually, it was shut down altogether. Coalition members say that whoever altered the site was never authorized to change the original content, and that the changes to the site deprived citizens of details about the coalition. "We used this site to get the word out, and to organize our opposition to the pipeline," Heckler says.

PIPE attorney Kent Johnson says a little cyber-sleuthing turned up Saunders' virtual fingerprints. Saunders could not be reached for comment, but in court documents he is accused of interfering with electronic mail, posting unauthorized information, and making the Web site unusable. Heckler says he hoped Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and local law enforcement agencies might launch a criminal investigation into the matter, but so far, they've declined to do so.

In a note sent out to several activists who had contacted his office concerning the Web site, Earle explained his decision not to pursue a criminal case. "[T]he action would be criminal only if it was clear, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person responsible for the activity lacked permission or authorization to make changes," he wrote. "Unfortunately in this situation, it appears that the person suspected of making the changes had been given access to the site in the past, and his authority to access the site and make changes had not been clearly revoked."

For now, Heckler says, the coalition will wait before building a new Web site. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Department of Transportation, which have joint authority to approve the pipeline, have not yet decided whether to require a full Environmental Impact Statement -- one of many points of contention that needs to be resolved before gas will ever flow through Longhorn's pipeline.

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