No Criminal Prosecution for Tree Killing Billboard Company

You’re driving down the road. And from a couple of hundred of feet, you see the giant billboard sign, urging you to vote for this candidate, or go to this dirty bookstore, or eat at this junk food outlet just up the road.

Did you ever wonder to what happened to all of those trees that might have been blocking your view of these informative signs?

Could it be that the billboard companies poisoned them? Yes it could. In fact, Robert Barnhart was a Tallahassee, Florida-based crew chief for the nation’s largest billboard company, Lamar Advertising, which owns more than 150,000 billboards across the country.

Barnhart poisoned trees in the middle of the night in the Tallahassee area – so that drivers could get a better view of Lamar billboards.

Barnhart says that he was wrongfully terminated when he said he could no longer poison trees. He took his information to various police agencies in Florida. He was granted immunity from prosecution.

But after months of investigation, the police said last week they would not criminally prosecute the company or any of the individuals involved.

It’s a sordid tale, recounted in articles by the Los Angeles, California-based non profit investigative reporting group FairWarning.
FairWarning reports that the State’s Attorney’s office, which investigated the case, said its probe was hampered by uncooperative witnesses, statute of limitations problems, and the death last year of a Lamar executive linked to the tree attacks.

“Although I suspect this was (and may still be) a corporate-wide practice, I have no evidence to show that it is occurring or has occurred in other Lamar offices,” wrote police investigator Jason Newlin in an August 3 report that was provided to FairWarning. “I also have no evidence that knowledge of this practice extends any further up the chain of command at Lamar than the now deceased Regional Manager, Chip Laborde. And the few violations that we can prove are outside the Statute of Limitations. Hence, it is my recommendation that this matter be closed without criminal prosecution.”

Georgia Cappleman, a chief assistant state attorney in charge of the criminal probe, told FairWarning that she was “disappointed’’ by the outcome.

“We would have liked to have been able to prove that it extended upward,” Cappleman said, “which we all know it does.” A Lamar spokesman told FairWarning that “Illegal vegetation control is not a Lamar corporate policy – it never has been, it never will be and it isn’t now.”

But FairWarning found that Lamar and the billboard industry have a long history of tree killing nationwide.

“As long as there have been billboards, trees have been getting in the way,” FairWarning reported in April. “And billboard companies have been removing them – sometimes legally, sometimes not. News archives are replete with accounts of mysterious tree disappearances near billboard sites. Usually, no one gets caught, due to lack of evidence or to officials failing to aggressively pursue those responsible. Fewer trees means more viewing time for motorists, and more money for billboard operators. A 500-foot clearance in front of a sign creates more than five seconds of viewing time for a motorist going 60 mph.”

FairWarning reports that in 2008, Lamar was sued by the state of Connecticut after the company and a tree service trespassed on state land and removed 83 trees along Interstate 84, including oak, spruce, maple and birch trees up to 37 inches in diameter.

They “swept a swath of destruction,” said then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, “obliterating a vital environmental buffer protecting homeowners from noxious noise and views.”

A judge found Lamar liable in October, 2010. In lieu of paying damages, Lamar agreed to fund a replanting program for an estimated $181,000.

In 2009, Lamar was forced to pay about $182,000 to an irate Ohio couple for illegally felling 34 trees on their property to improve views of a sign, FairWarning reported.

“What is unusual about these episodes is that someone got caught,” FairWarning concluded in its April report. “More often, over the years, the culprits remained unknown or were not aggressively pursued by authorities.”


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