Listening to James Alexander Thom last Tuesday recount the recent attacks on Scott Wells' reputation reminded me of an ominous observation Charlotte Read shared a few years ago. Since 1952, Charlotte and her husband Herb, working through the Save the Dunes Council, have dedicated their lives to protecting the crown jewel of Indiana's environmental heritage - the Indiana dunes on Lake Michigan, literally the birthplace of the science of ecology.

As you can imagine, advocating for the environment in a region dominated by steel, oil and chemicals, just outside Chicago, the Reads have encountered just about every flavor of political opponent there is. But according to Charlotte, the meanest and nastiest of the lot, bar none, have been radicals in the so-called "property-rights movement."

With Jim Thom offering words of praise and support, County Councilman Wells last Tuesday put Monroe County's "property-rights" extremists on notice that he draws the line at the point where it touches his reputation and good name. At a news conference in the Courthouse, Wells announced that he had just sued county resident Kevin Shiflet for defamation.

Thom, an Owen County native and historical novelist, briefly traced some of Wells' life achievements, from his athletic accomplishments - which include twice participating in the Ironman Triathlon World Championships - to his two years public service on the Monroe County Council, Plan Commission and Comprehensive Plan Committee.

He noted Wells' 14-year career as a school teacher, the last seven at Owen Valley High School, where he also serves as head track coach. He cited the 2001 VFW National Citizenship Education Teacher Award Wells won "for years of dedication to his students." (Yes, that's the Veterans of Foreign Wars.) He praised Wells' efforts to promote "benign growth" in our community and his dedication to stopping the "community cancer" of unchecked development that has degraded our environment and quality of life.

Thom was confident in his belief that Scott Wells honors a code of truth, honesty and integrity in his professional and public lives. And he deplored the "meanness" of the "self-winding vigilantes" who have drug Monroe County's public dialogue over growth and development to new depths. The lawsuit, filed in Monroe Circuit Court, set forth in legal terms part of what Thom meant.

It alleges that Shiflet published "malicious and defamatory" statements that "harm the reputation of Scott Wells." In a sworn affidavit that Shiflet distributed at this month's council meeting, "he swore that Scott Wells had told him that he knew about the fire at the Pedigo Bay project before it happened and that he knew the people involved but would not reveal their names." The suit further alleges that Shiflet repeated the defamation on WGCL radio and "stated that he had informed the FBI, ATF, as well as State and Local law enforcement agencies."

Considering that Shiflet notarized the alleged defamation before distributing it at a public meeting, a logical reaction might be to dismiss the whole affair as an act of naive political stupidity. But there's much more to the story.

Practically before the fire at Pedigo Bay had been extinguished, the Herald-Times gave Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce head Steve Howard free ink to accuse Wells of "fanning the flames" that led to the fire. Wells culpability, apparently, is a consequence of his tenacious pursuit, as an elected public official, of environmental violations at the Pedigo Bay development on the shores of Lake Monroe. The county has fined project developer PB Estates LLC more than $40,000, mostly for failing to provide and implement erosion control plans.

The paper's editorial board then tied Wells personally, and environmentalists in general, to the same complicity. Their technique was as transparent as it was irresponsible. They repeated the flame-fanning charges in detail, only to qualify that recitation by saying, "But we're not saying that." Make no mistake about it. That's exactly what they were saying. They made Scott Wells' name synonymous with arson, in the same way they have tied environmentalists in the public mind to the criminal acts of a few through their obsessive use of the sensational, oxymoronic term "eco-terrorism."

Not only has Wells vigorously denied Shiflet's accusations, but he and other environmental leaders in Monroe County have publicly denounced the fire at Pedigo Bay as the indefensible, inexcusable criminal act that it was. They were forced to do so at a news conference, bringing to mind the old quote from Lyndon Johnson, I believe, that goes something like: "I don't care whether the bastard did it. I just want him to deny it."

And if all of that weren't enough, a bumper sticker repeating a question that Shiflet posed at the Council meeting was recently affixed to the bumper of Wells' car. It says: "What did Scott Wells know and when did he know it?"

Thanks for the warning, Charlotte.