Alumnus Patrick Duggan Shares Insights from Historic Prosecution of Lumber Liquidators for Illegal Timber Importation

March 1, 2016

Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084,

By Lyndsi Lewis
Nicholas School Social Media Specialist

DURHAM, N.C. – When history was made last month with the successful prosecution of Virginia-based hardwood flooring retailer Lumber Liquidators Inc., Nicholas School alum Patrick Duggan, JD/MA ’10, was at the heart of the case.  

Lumber Liquidators was convicted for the illegal importation, through China, of flooring made with timber harvested in the far eastern Russian habitat of the last remaining Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in the world.

According to the Department of Justice, the company will pay $13.15 million in total fines. Prosecuted under the U.S. Lacey Act, one of the world’s primary legislative examples of wildlife preservation and forest conservation, the case was the first felony conviction for timber trafficking and the largest criminal fine ever recorded under the Act.

Duggan was the lead prosecutor on the case, and was joined by colleague and fellow Nicholas School alum, Christopher L. Hale, JD/MEM '00.  

Both are trial attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.

We recently chatted with Duggan from his Washington D.C. office about the environmental significance of this case and his pivotal role in it:

Q: This is a landmark case for environmental law, as the country’s first federal victory against illegal timber importation. Why now? Do you think that national and global leaders are starting to make issues like this a priority?

Duggan: “Yes, they are. I think that the “why” is largely because of legislation. The Lacey Act has been around for 116 years, but it was only amended to include timber in 2008 and the amendment was phased-in through 2010. The U.S. was the leader on that, being the first to ban importing timber that had been harvested illegally. Being that the U.S. is a major consumer, and huge producer, of international wood products, that started to change the timber market and now other regions are doing the same. It has influenced the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR), which I was involved in and my office has been working on for a long time.

“So one aspect of it is legislation moving the market, but then the other side is that consumers more and more want to know where their products are from and that they were obtained ethically.

“We’ve seen this trend largely with fish and animal products.  Timber is lagging behind in that area, but it’s catching up. Hopefully someday you will be able to look at a product in Target and say “Oh, this is oak from Russia. Maybe I should think twice before I buy this.” So it’s a full circle process, beginning with the law shedding light on the problem for consumers.

“I’m hoping that this case will push consumers even further into thinking about where their wood comes from. Then of course NGOs have done a good job of getting the word out there to educate people, as well as to highlight the problem. An NGO actually gave us the original tip on this case, and provided significant evidence.”

Q: What sort of message does this send to other companies that might try something similar?

Duggan: “I think the general message comes from the environmental compliance plan that we put together, which Lumber Liquidators agreed to as part of the guilty plea.  Though it is a long document, the basic idea is that that you can no longer import things without reporting exactly what it is you’re bringing in. That’s very significant because a piece of oak from a very extensive habitat in far east Russia looks the same as a piece of oak from a lot of other places. So in this industry, companies can get away with saying that a product is whatever they want it to be. “

Q: Illegal timber importation can be difficult to track. How do you prove that? What government agencies did you coordinate with to prove this?

Duggan: “Lots of them. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Special Agents were joint investigators along with the Department of Homeland Security Special Agents for this case. We also got information from the U.S. Forest Service and Customs and Border Patrol. This case was a very broad government effort because it’s so unprecedented. There’s no one in the U.S. government who has made their career on investigating or prosecuting illegal timber cases, so we were inventing the wheel. Plus we really had our work cut out for us. When you issue a search warrant on a billion-dollar, publically traded company, there’s a lot of documents. We had to trace paper trails. And that’s what this law (Lacey Act) is set up to do—to make a paper trail.

“Under these new regulations, when you import a wood product you have to declare what country it was harvested in, what the genus and species is, etc. So there was a lot of long hours looking through documents and piecing together the puzzle of what actually happened and who actually knew what.

“People say that the wheels of justice move slowly. And they do, but that’s largely because, especially on big corporate cases, there’s so much information and so many people involved and so many emails and memos to work through. If you want to piece together the facts of a narrative that took place over the course of many years, in an organization we were not a part of, it takes time.”

Q: Illegal timber importation is dangerous two-fold. It harms the economy and the environment when companies harvest lumber from fragile and remote biodiverse ecosystems. The impacts of cutting often extend far beyond just the cutting itself. Was this case similar? Can you elaborate on what the other long-term, environmental impacts may be in this case?

Duggan: “In general, that is always an issue. If you’ve got an area that is protected, then that area should not suffer damage of resource extraction: the edge effects that creep in when you cut down trees or introduce roads, the erosion, the impact on riparian zones, or the various impacts on native species. As students at the Nicholas School will tell you, trees are really the base of the food chain. They enable everything else. And if you take those away it will all start to fall apart.

“This is especially true in old growth forests. You are taking away the habitat that these animals are completely dependent on.

“In this case, that area is home to the last Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in the world. Its a very unique ecosystem and in taking out the trees you’re taking away the base of the food chain for the red deer and boar that tigers and leopards feed on. These prey species survive almost wholly on oak acorns and Korean pine nuts. If you cut down those older, bigger, more productive trees, then you’re cutting down the bioavailability of that prey species. Consequently, the leopards and tigers that rely on those fattened up species throughout the winter, no longer have prey. “

Q: Were your classes and experiences at the Nicholas School helpful in this process?

Duggan: “Yes. There’s two answers here: First, the general appreciation of how products you see in everyday life are connected to the natural world.  Understanding the lifecycle of a product and how there’s a lot more than meets the eye when you buy something made from a natural product. It’s understanding and appreciating the impact on the entire ecosystem. Specific classes, such as “Life Cycle Analysis” with Dalia Patiño-Echeverri certainly honed that knowledge.

“But the one that helped me the most, and this seems kind of crazy, was “Southern Tree Identification.” That class was amazing!  You basically wander around Duke Forest and you learn how to identify trees. Dan Richter and Jeff Pippen taught it—they were a great dynamic duo. As I’m looking through all the documents for this case, I can say ’Wait a minute, that says Betula. That means that’s a birch. That’s not coming from a tropical climate.’ Or,  “This is an acacia—that’s not coming from a cold weather climate.’ Or “That’s an American tree, that’s not growing in China.’

“The ability to recognize the Latin names was invaluable. Even if I don’t know the specific species, if I know characteristics of that genus, I can look through documents and say, ‘There’s something wrong with this declaration or with this paperwork because there’s no way that could have happened.’ Some of the import declarations on this case were just not possible. It’s just not possible for that tree to grow there. And someone who has any knowledge about forestry would have known that right away. I’ve always sort of been a nut about trees and so having knowledge from Dan’s class that was directly applicable to this case –, well that’s just not something you can say very often, and that’s pretty cool.

“Another interesting aspect was in stakeholder management. If you’re dealing with foresters or environmental professionals, the fact that I have this master’s degree helps assure them that I have some understanding of the science and technical side.  Then they are less likely to see me as just another suit stepping in perform legal gymnastics. They’re more likely to see me as a colleague who is also handling the legal side of the case, and that relationship made things much easier.”