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Balloon Boy family shouldn't have to pay for sheriff to "look pretty on TV," lawyer says

balloon boy heene craft in flight.jpg
Wasn't chasing this sucker more fun than rescuing Mr. Whiskers?
Two weeks ago, David Lane, attorney for Balloon Boy dad Richard Heene, griped that a $47,000-plus restitution charge for leading law-enforcement officials on a wild experimental-craft chase was way too high.

That complaint has now been formalized: A motion challenging the amount was filed on Friday -- and this morning, a Denver Post editorial unexpectedly sided with the Heenes.

When reached this morning, Lane had not yet read the editorial -- but he's got plenty of complaints about the charges. For one thing, he asserts that the Heenes are being charged "so the sheriff can look pretty on TV."

The sheriff in question is Larimer County's Jim Alderden, who got plenty of national and international face time during the period when officials thought young Falcon Heene might be aboard the runaway balloon that spent hours floating over Colorado.

Lane says part of the restitution bill involves "charging us with expenses related to dealing with the media," which he sees as out of bounds: "Hiring a makeup consultant for the sheriff, or an image burnisher, or a media spokesperson -- that's their choice to do that. That wasn't part of the law enforcement effort."

As for the notion of the Heenes being made to pony up for other aspects of police work, Lane says, "If they're using cops who are getting paid their salaries to do a rescue effort or they're using cops who are getting paid their salaries to investigate a 7-Eleven robbery, those aren't legitimate restitution expenses. When they track down the robber, they don't charge him because they spent 600 cop hours to track him down. That's normal taxpayer expense."

What about the argument that the Heenes should be responsible for police costs because officers were unable to follow up on other matters because they were devoting their resources to a publicity stunt?

Says Lane, "They'll get their work done at some point. Whether they're rescuing a cat stuck in a tree, taking a coffee break or chasing a balloon, it's all part of being a police officer. They're getting their salaries."

Not that Lane believes the Heenes should pay nothing at all. For instance, he notes that "if they had to pay overtime for people to do some special project, because they're out of pocket money they otherwise wouldn't be, that would be legitimate restitution expense." But at this point, he's got more questions than answers. Example: "If they want to charge for helicopters for the National Guard, I want to know if they were getting credit for doing a training run. Would they have been spending that money at some point anyway? And how do we know how much it really costs?"

Just before Richard Heene began serving his jail sentence for the alleged hoax, he went on media outlets aplenty claiming that he'd been lying about lying in order to prevent the deportation of his wife, Mayumi. Take this Today Show visit, which includes a clip of Sheriff Alderden saying Heene's re-assertions of innocence nearly made him throw up.

Does Lane worry that Larimer County officials will be less likely to negotiate the restitution charge because Heene publicly castigated them? "This is an accounting problem, not a credibility problem generally," he replies. "The amount of restitution is neither dependent on the sheriff telling the truth or not regarding the substance of the case or the Heenes telling the truth. It's an accounting issue."

What's next? The sheriff's office must respond to the Friday filing, after which a judge will set a hearing -- probably in March, Lane predicts. He adds, "A settlement is always a possibility."

One he would likely welcome.


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