The Republican Congressman and His Negligent Forest Fire
A tale of string pulling and happy ending -- unless you're a taxpayer
Justice is supposed to be blind but some are above the law – at least for now. We run this 2008 press release from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility of June 4.
For more than four years, a prominent Republican congressman refused to pay charges assessed by the US Forest Service for a fire he set which burned out of control. Political intervention repeatedly delayed both billing and collecting from US Representative Henry Brown (R-South Carolina), including a delinquent payment demand that was retracted this March, only to be re-issued in April with more than $1,000 in penalties waived.
“Due to political meddling, the Forest Service has spent well more than $100,000 in staff time to collect less than $5,000 from Congressman Brown,” stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). “Representative Brown got more than kid glove treatment in this case; he was handled with asbestos mitts by a Forest Service petrified of its political bosses.”
The original incident was back on March 5, 2004, when Rep. Brown set a prescribed burn on his property 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 Francis Marion 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.”
Agency policy requires collection of all costs of fire suppression, but US Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey blocked that assessment after meeting with Rep. Brown. In fact, the agency did not even issue a criminal notice of violation (a $250 fine) for six months and did so only after Forest Service law enforcement agents filed a whistleblower complaint that was publicized by PEER. Brown paid that fine, after the ticket was hand delivered to his Capitol office in September 2004.
At that time, Undersecretary Rey directed the Forest Service to re-examine its civil collection practices before proceeding any further against Rep. Brown. Following that ordered review, on January 28, 2005 the Forest Service sent Rep. Brown a bill for $4747.18 but the congressman refused to pay.
* On January 31, 2005, Rep. Brown submitted a counterclaim against the government for $9,040 and interest for his losses from a 1989 fire on his property. His claim was dismissed for being long past the two-year statute of limitations for such a claim;
* In December 2005, Rep. Brown still had not paid the assessment and the bill was turned over to the Forest Service claims office for collection as delinquent, but sat for more than two years; and
* On March 12, 2008, a demand letter for a total of $5773.03 (the original $4747 bill “plus accrued interest, penalty and administrative costs”) was finally sent to Rep. Brown via certified mail; that letter, however, was intercepted and withdrawn.
* On March 18, 2008, PEER submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for relevant documents. On April 9, the Forest Service issued a new “revised” demand letter to Rep. Brown for the original $4,747.18 amount, explaining that the agency “has agreed to waive all past interest and penalties…” The Forest Service says that it has no records explaining how this agreement was reached or who negotiated it. Rep. Brown finally paid the original civil assessment on April 20, 2008 – more than four years after the fire.
Brown is a member of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee, and, as one Forest Service briefing paper notes, “Congressman Brown is a strong supporter of active NF [National Forest] management…”
“Congressional allies of the Bush administration get discounts at taxpayer expense while ordinary citizens are charged full freight,” Ruch concluded. “Only repeated threats of exposure have kept even anemic enforcement against Representative Brown moving – albeit at the speed of molasses.”
Despite ultimately proceeding against Rep. Brown, on May 27, 2008 the Forest Service narrowed its fire rules to require proof of negligence for a criminal citation if the blaze was a “prescribed fire” under a federal or state permit. While this change may not have affected Rep. Brown, as the Forest Service had found him negligent for carelessly conducting the burn on his property, it will make it more difficult to pursue such cases in the future.
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