Thursday, September 18, 2008

USFS cuts fine for congressman involved in escaped fire

Wildfire Today first covered this on June 4, but now there are new developments.

From The State.com
By JAMES ROSEN - jrosen@mcclatchydc.com

WASHINGTON — A senior federal official, fearful of incurring a congressman’s wrath, sent subordinates on a mad dash earlier this year to retrieve a certified letter demanding payment of $5,773 for starting a fire that burned 20 acres of a national forest.

U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, R-SC

Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources, said he didn’t want U.S. Rep. Henry Brown to receive the March 12 letter before he testified before a U.S. House committee on which the South Carolina Republican sits.

“I’d just as soon have him not take a chunk of hide out of me,” Rey said Wednesday.

Rey confirmed the actions of Forest Service collections agents as outlined in internal agency documents McClatchy (newspapers) obtained.

Mark Rey, Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources

The disclosures flesh out Brown’s four-year protest of a criminal citation and civil damages collection for a controlled burn he started March 4, 2004, on his Berkeley County property that spread to the adjoining Francis Marion National Forest.

Rey defended his decision to intercept the letter as “a reasonable precaution” to prevent Brown from “stewing on it while he’s sitting up there on the dais” of the U.S. House Natural Resources subcommittee, which oversees management of national parks and forests.

As a result of Brown’s case, the Forest Service in June rewrote a criminal code to make it more difficult to prosecute people who negligently set fires on federal land — about 80 fires a year in the South alone.

“It will be much harder for us to go after people who allow fires to escape from their property onto the national forests,” said Jack Gregory, who was the Forest Service’s top law enforcement agent in the 13 Southern states at the time of Brown’s 2004 fire.

A separate law governs arsonists who intentionally start fires in national forests.

Public land wardens and private property owners do controlled burns to remove underbrush, dead trees and other tinder that makes forests more vulnerable to fires.

Rey, a former timber lobbyist and a political appointee of President Bush, is responsible for running 156 national forests and 34 other federal lands on 191 million acres in 44 states.


Brown paid a reduced fine of $4,747 in April, but only after ensnaring dozens of federal employees in a conflict that cost the government an estimated $100,000 to resolve.

Forest Service officials agreed to remove accrued interest and late-payment penalties, reducing Brown’s bill by more than $1,000.

The Brown saga shows the power of a single congressman, especially one going up against an agency over which he has oversight responsibility.

“This is ticket-fixing at the highest levels,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington legal group that defends government whistleblowers. The group filed a Freedom of Information Act request that produced the Forest Service documents related to the Brown case.

Brown believes he was treated more harshly than others to set an example.

“I was so taken aback that I’d be treated so impersonal — like I was some kind of crook,” Brown said Wednesday. “Those were criminal charges that were filed against me. I felt like I was the victim.”

Brown said many people who start fires on public lands face no charges.

“I know for a fact that on Highway 17 (in South Carolina), there was a lady burning trash and the fire got away. It burned several thousand acres of national forest, but she didn’t pay a fine.,” he said.

Brown added, “Because I’m a congressman, you don’t have any sympathy for me, but you could have sympathy for the little old lady that set a trash fire.”

After Brown was cited for negligence in a federal misdemeanor charge, he hired a lawyer and billed the federal government $9,040 for alleged damage to his land from a controlled burn he said Forest Service rangers set in 1989 — 15 years earlier.

Government lawyers rejected the claim, saying it had exceeded the federal statute of limitations.

Brown then went on a personal crusade in which he complained about his penalty in numerous e-mails, letters and phone exchanges with U.S. Forest Service employees in Washington, South Carolina, New Mexico and elsewhere.

Rey said he met with Brown “at least two times” after the congressman summoned him to his Capitol Hill office to discuss the dispute.

Gregory, the former top Forest Service law enforcement agent in the South who retired in December 2006, said he notified Strom Thurmond Jr., the U.S. attorney for South Carolina, of the pending charge against the congressman in March 2004.

“Whenever we encountered people who were important political types, we had to go to the U.S. attorney’s office before we entered a criminal case,” Gregory said. “I did that (with Brown). They said go ahead and charge the congressman criminally.”

Gregory and John “Andy” Sadler, based in the U.S. Forest Service’s Columbia office as a patrol captain in the agency’s uniformed agent corps, said Brown and a helper used buckets and trash cans filled with water to try to contain the controlled burn.

“Congressman Brown didn’t intend to burn National Forest land, but he was careless and lazy that day,” Gregory said.


Brown didn’t take the charge lying down.

Sadler said Brown spoke by phone with him and Jerome Thomas, supervisor of the Francis Marion and Sumter National Forests.

During the March 26, 2004, phone conversation, Brown made “an implied threat” of increased congressional scrutiny of U.S. Forest Service programs if the criminal charge and fines against him were pursued, Sadler said.

Rey, though, said Sadler and Thomas might have misunderstood Brown.

“Some of our folks assume when they’re dealing with an angry member of Congress that repercussions will follow,” Rey said.

Sadler and Gregory filed a federal whistleblowers complaint that accused Brown, Rey and other Forest Service employees of obstruction of justice, extortion and other crimes.

A review by the Inspector General’s Office in the Agriculture Department, the Forest Service’s parent agency, did not find sufficient evidence to support the allegations.

Rey said he oversaw the recent stiffening of the criminal negligence code for fires that spread to national forests after Brown’s case helped him realize there was a double standard.

The Forest Service, Rey said, had never admitted criminal liability in any controlled burns its rangers set that spread to private property.

“I just didn’t feel it was equitable for us to be holding private landowners to a standard that we were unwilling to be held to,” Rey said.

Whatever the explanation, Sadler said, fewer people will be held to account for starting fires in the national forests.

“As a result of all this stuff, the agency’s pretty well changed its prohibitions on what is actually a crime anymore,” he said. “It’s kind of within their authority to do that, it just doesn’t look too swift.”

Rosen covers Washington for McClatchy newspapers in South Carolina.

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