Washington, DC — The U.S. Forest Service blocked the assessment of mandatory criminal penalties and civil cost recovery for an escaped fire set by U.S. Representative Henry Brown (R-South Carolina) that burned out of control in the Francis Marion National Forest, according to a whistleblower complaint released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Orders to agency law enforcement to cease prosecution and collection of fire suppression costs came after the Congressman met with U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey.
Citing “blatant” obstruction, extortion and violations of agency policies, the whistleblower complaint was filed with the Agriculture Office of Inspector General on September 8th by two top Forest Service criminal investigators, including the senior agent for the southeastern U.S. The complaint details how Rep. Brown threatened retaliation against the Forest Service budget if the enforcement against him were to proceed.
On March 5, 2004, Rep. Brown conducted a prescribed burn on his property adjoining the national forest. Brown had a state permit authorizing a 25-acre burn but he set the fire on a day in which a “Red Flag Alert” was issued due to high winds. The fire quickly burned more than 200 acres of Brown’s land and crossed over into the national forest, burning another 20 acres there. The Forest Service needed a helicopter, three fire engines and a bulldozer to bring the fire under control. A Forest Service review of the fire found that Brown was negligent:
“Mr. Brown was not adequately prepared to detect, or adequately equipped to suppress, the escaped fire on 5 March 2004 with only two men, a bucket of water, and no means of delivery of that water to the escaped fire.”
“This is an act of corruption both petty and profound,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that agency policy requires both assessing a criminal fine of approximately $250 as well as a civil action to recover the agency’s fire suppression costs, estimated at approximately $4,000. “The pattern with this Administration is that the laws do not apply to its political allies.”
When Forest Service officials informed Rep. Brown that he would be cited for the fire, the Congressman expressed concern that his political opponents would find out about it and warned that if the Forest Service persisted its programs “might need to be scrutinized more closely.” Brown then reportedly contacted agency officials at higher and higher levels without receiving the assurance of non-prosecution. It was not until he met with Agriculture Undersecretary Rey, a former timber lobbyist, that he extracted a promise to drop the matter. Even after agency specialists ruled that the collections requirement could not be waived, on August 24th, law enforcement agents were directed by email, “we are to take no action.”
While it has opened an investigation, the Inspector General has no authority to take direct action of any kind and may only refer the matter for criminal prosecution and/or disciplinary action. “We would be surprised if the IG acts quickly and aggressively to investigate its own undersecretary,” added Ruch. “This Administration has no track record of holding its own political appointees accountable.”