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Originally published July 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 12, 2007 at 12:34 PM

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Firing by Bush rejected by boundary official

A dispute over a backyard wall in Whatcom County has reached all the way to the White House, with President Bush firing International Boundary...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A dispute over a backyard wall in Whatcom County has reached all the way to the White House, with President Bush firing International Boundary Commissioner Dennis Schornack over his handling of the matter.

But on Wednesday Schornack rejected his dismissal by the commander-in-chief.

In a strongly worded letter to Bush, Schornack said the International Boundary Commission (IBC) is an independent, international organization outside the U.S. government's jurisdiction. Schornack wrote that according to the 1908 treaty that created the IBC, a vacancy can only be created by "the death, resignation or other disability" of a commissioner.

Thus, Schornack said, the president cannot fire him.

"I am unable to recognize the authority of this communication because I don't believe that you would knowingly act beyond your authority, outside the law or to otherwise jeopardize the national security of the United States," Schornack wrote.

A dejected Schornack said Wednesday: "I am ashamed of my government." Bush nominated him to the IBC in 2001.

Schornack's lawyer, Elliot Feldman, said Schornack was fired because he refused to let the Justice Department handle the legal battle over a cement wall built by Shirley-Ann and Herbert Leu of Blaine, which Schornack says illegally encroaches on the U.S.-Canadian border and must be torn down.

The IBC in February told the Leus that their recently constructed cement wall lay within the 20-foot "vista" that buffers the U.S.-Canada border (10 feet on the Canadian side, 10 feet on the U.S. side). The IBC said if the Leus did not remove the wall, the agency would take it down.

The Leus contacted the Pacific Legal Foundation and in April filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to keep the IBC from removing the wall.

The lawsuit was the first ever filed against the IBC, which was created by a 1908 treaty between the U.S. and Canada to oversee the operation and maintenance of the border. It has U.S. and Canadian representatives and receives funding from both governments.

The U.S. component of the IBC has five full-time staffers, according to its Web site, and its primary mission is maintaining markers along the border and keeping the boundary line free of trees and other obstructions.

Schornack sought assistance from the State Department, but was told the agency could not help with the lawsuit because the IBC is an independent entity, Feldman said.

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Schornack then contacted the Justice Department, which agreed to assist the IBC, but then said it could not offer advice on international law and treaties, according to Feldman.

The Justice Department advised Schornack to hire outside counsel to assist the IBC, so Schornack enlisted Feldman's services. Feldman said he began working collaboratively with federal prosecutors in Seattle.

"We are the lawyers for government agencies in Western Washington," said Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's in Seattle.

But lawyers at Justice Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., and acting Assistant Attorney General Ronald Tenpas particularly wanted to settle the suit, Feldman said.

Schornack and Feldman said the IBC had a strong case and felt the Leus' wall presented a legitimate risk to national security, particularly if it paved the way for more new construction inside the border vista that might provide protection for terrorists or drug smugglers.

So Schornack pressed ahead, against the wishes of the Justice Department, and last week enlisted former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay to represent the IBC in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Feldman said.

Late Tuesday, Schornack received a faxed letter from Liza Wright, assistant to the president for personnel, informing him Bush had terminated his appointment "effective immediately."

The White House referred calls about the firing to the Department of Justice, but officials there declined to comment, saying it was a personnel matter.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724. Information from Newhouse News Service is included in this report.

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