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Congressman vs. Forest Service: Smoke or fire?

WASHINGTON — A senior federal official who was fearful of incurring a congressman's wrath sent his subordinates on a mad dash earlier this year to retrieve a certified letter demanding that the lawmaker pay a $5,773 fine for starting a fire that burned 20 acres of a South Carolina national forest.

Mark Rey, the undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, said he didn't want Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., a member of the House Natural Resources subcommittee that oversees the management of the country's national parks and forests, to get the March 12 letter before he testified to the subcommittee.

"I'd just as soon have him not take a chunk of hide out of me," Rey said in an interview Wednesday. "I don't think that rises to the level of a smoking gun. I think it rises to the level of a dripping water gun. Two days of justice delayed is not justice denied."

Internal agency documents obtained by McClatchy document Brown's fierce, four-year protest of a criminal negligence citation and civil damages collection for a controlled burn he started on his property in March 2004 that spread to the adjoining Francis Marion National Forest.

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

Jack Gregory, who was the Forest Service's top law-enforcement agent in its Southern region at the time of Brown's 2004 fire, and John "Andy" Sadler, based in the Forest Service's Columbia, S.C., office, said that Brown and an assistant used buckets and trashcans filled with water to try to contain the burn.

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

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.

Government lawyers rejected the claim, saying the federal statute of limitations had run out.

Brown then complained about his penalty in numerous e-mail, letter and phone exchanges with Forest Service employees in Washington, South Carolina, New Mexico and elsewhere.

Sadler said that Brown spoke by phone with him and Jerome Thomas, the 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 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, didn't find sufficient evidence to support the allegations.

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

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.

Gregory, the former Forest Service law-enforcement agent who retired in December 2006, said that 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."

After an extended battle with Brown, Forest Service officials agreed to remove accrued interest and late-payment penalties from the congressman's fine, reducing it by more than $1,000. Brown paid a reduced fine of $4,747 in April, but only after he ensnared dozens of federal employees in a four-year fight that cost the government an estimated $100,000.

"This is ticket-fixing at the highest levels," said Jeff Ruch, the 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, however, thinks that he was treated more harshly than others in order 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."

As a result of Brown's case, the Forest Service in June rewrote a criminal code to make it harder to prosecute people who negligently set fires on federal land. A separate law governs arsonists who intentionally start fires in national forests.

"It will be much harder for us to go after people who allow fires to escape from their property onto the national forests," Gregory said.


Francis Marion and Sumter National Forests