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Environmental group wants gag order over trade secrets in Virginia farm fight

Claiming “trade secrets” are at stake, an environmental group wants a gag order slapped on an upcoming case involving Fauquier County farmer Martha Boneta.

The Piedmont Environmental Council is seeking the protective order to squelch public disclosures stemming from Boneta’s lawsuit against the PEC and a neighbor.

Boneta has sued the PEC, along with Phillip and Patricia Thomas, alleging a “business conspiracy” between the parties.

Boneta’s lawsuit charges the nonprofit PEC with “assisting Thomas in actions which are intended to drive down the price of (her) Paris Farm so that Thomas may buy back Paris Farm at a discount.”

Additionally, the lawsuit asserts, “The PEC is using its resources to assist Thomas in the profitable sale” of his property across the street from Boneta’s farm.

To shield financial records and other information from public view, attorneys for the PEC and the Thomases will ask Fauquier Circuit Judge Jeffrey Parker to grant a protective order.

A hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Fauquier County Courthouse, 29 Ashby St., Warrenton. But consideration of the protective order was canceled Thursday, with a new date to be determined.

Other courts have ruled that nonprofit 501(c)(3)s, such as the PEC, can have trade secrets needing protection.

But trade-secret protections cannot cloak unlawful activity.

Further, a “conservation easement” enforced on Boneta’s farm by the PEC is a matter of public record. The easement was issued to the council and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation by Fauquier County.

The organizations receive tax breaks for holding and administering such publicly granted easements.

John Walker III, a Richmond attorney representing the PEC, said he couldn’t discuss the protective order because it relates to ongoing litigation.

The Thomases’ lawyers didn’t respond to a request for comment by Watchdog.org.

Tom DeWeese, director of the conservative American Policy Center, is skeptical about the PEC’s plea for protection from public scrutiny.

“Trade secrets, really? What do you have to hide?” he mused.