Leslie James Pickering knows the FBI is watching him.
He wants to know how, when it will end and whether others are targeted.
Pickering, a former spokesman for the press office of the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group, has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Buffalo to learn the answers.
“I’m looking to find out what they’re doing to me, my family, my community and my business,” Pickering said Wednesday. “And if it will ever end.”
Pickering’s ties to the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, are well known. He was a founder and spokesman for its press office, but he claims he was never involved in their illegal activities.
The group is best known for a series of arsons in the late 1990s and early 2000s at dozens of businesses – the timber companies, car dealerships and slaughterhouses that it believed were destroying the environment.
Pickering, who grew up in East Aurora and West Seneca and now owns Burning Books on Connecticut Street, said he quit the press office more than 10 years ago.
His goal, he said, is to end the government’s surveillance and determine if other social activists are being watched by the government.
“It’s not just me,” he said. “I’m trying to find out what the government is doing to groups involved in social change. I don’t think you should be treated as a criminal when you haven’t been involved in any criminal activity.”
The alternative weekly Artvoice has joined in the action.
The FBI declined to comment on Pickering’s suit, but in the past, the agency has described the ELF as the nation’s No. 1 domestic terror threat.
“The FBI’s policy is not to comment on anything going before the court,” said Supervisory Special Agent Gregory D. Nelsen, spokesman for the FBI office in Buffalo.
The government is not the only one that views the ELF as a threat. The Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center consider the group an “eco-terrorism” group responsible for at least $30 million in property damage.
Since his departure from the group, Pickering has found himself the target of government surveillance, including FBI interviews with his associates, grand jury subpoenas for his records and the U.S. Postal Service’s monitoring of his mail.
Eager to find out what else the government may have done, his lawyers filed several Freedom of Information requests that, so far, have produced little or no information from the Postal Service and FBI.
“They came up with all kinds of ploys to avoid complying with the Freedom of Information Act,” said Buffalo attorney Michael Kuzma.
Daire B. Irwin and Joseph M. Finnerty, one of Buffalo’s premier First Amendment lawyers, are assisting Kuzma with the lawsuit.