EcoVest Capital Inc., a company named by the Department of Justice in a lawsuit claiming tax abuses in land conservation easements says the government doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on in its complaint filed last month.
The Justice Department in December filed a complaint in U.S. District Court seeking an order to stop Ball Ground resident Nancy Zak, along with Claud Clark III, EcoVest Capital Inc., Alan N. Solon, Robert M. McCullough, and Ralph R. Teal, Jr., from “organizing, promoting, or selling an allegedly abusive conservation easement syndication tax scheme,” the department said in a written statement.
“EcoVest was surprised to learn from a press release that the Department of Justice seeks to take action against our company. The allegations are based on gross misrepresentations, and the complaint is with-out merit,” Ecovest said in a statement. “Our business has at all times been lawful and conducted in an ethical fashion.”
The suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia claims the defendants have promoted an illegal scheme based on donation of conservation easements and tax deductions from the donations. A conservation easement preserves land in an undeveloped state and can under some circumstances qualify for a tax break.
The complaint alleges the defendants put together limited liability entities called “conservation easement syndicates.” The government alleges the easement donations are based on inflated property appraisals.
EcoVest defends its activities in the area of conservation easements.
“Since the late 1970s, the availability of the conservation easement non-cash charitable deduction has helped conserve millions of acres of American land. In 2015, Congress passed a bipartisan bill permanently increasing the tax incentives for conservation easements with the goal of encouraging more landowners to donate their land for conservation,” the company said in a statement.
“EcoVest has undertaken its programs with scrupulous attention to these principles. Our programs are in full compliance with the legal requirements for conservation easements, while preserving open spaces, wildlife habitats and safeguarding natural resources for the long term. To date, EcoVest has helped protect nearly 20,000 acres of land, an area roughly the size of Manhattan,” the company said. “Our business undertakes the most rigorous of processes to ensure that our investment programs and the appraisals of the value of conservation easements are valid. These appraisals are made by highly qualified appraisers which are then corroborated by secondary reviews from independent sources. We commission multiple third parties to perform independent due diligence and verify the validity of the independent, third-party appraisals and related work product.
Benjamin Razi, a lawyer representing EcoVest, said the company will prevail in court.
“This is an over-reaching government lawsuit that should never have been filed. It is based on gross misrepresentations about the conduct of EcoVest and its principals. While the government has unfortunately chosen to try to litigate the case by press release, we look forward to presenting the real facts in court,” Razi said.
Former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Eizenstat, who once served as the lead U.S. negotiator for the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, is also representing EcoVest, and describes the action taken by the Department of Justice as “a mistake by government lawyers, and against the basic intent of what Congress enacted into U.S. law, which was to provide people tax incentives to use conservation easements to conserve land for the future. This is a clear plus for the environment.”
“As we take all necessary steps to clear our good name, we remain committed to protecting and improving sustainable land development and conservation strategies and to our mission of environmental protection and social responsibility,” EcoVest said in a statement.