Washington, DC -- The U.S. Forest Service hand-delivered a criminal notice of violation to the Capitol-Hill office of Representative Henry Brown (R-South Carolina) this past Friday, citing him for negligence in allowing a fire on his property to burn out of control and spread into the Francis Marion National Forest. The agency's action comes on the heels of charges filed by two of its senior criminal investigators that the Congressman and U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey politically obstructed appropriate law enforcement, according to the whistleblower complaint released last week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The belated agency action comes more than six months after the incident and follows repeated directives from top officials to refrain from prosecuting the two-term lawmaker. The criminal notice of violation carries a $250 fine, which Rep. Brown indicates he will pay. But, contrary to its policy, the Forest Service did not assess Rep. Brown for the agency's costs in suppressing the fire.
"The Forest Service leadership scuttled like cockroaches after the kitchen light was flicked on," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization provides legal aid to public agency environmental whistleblowers. "We will be watching to ensure that the law enforcement officers who brought this matter to public attention do not suffer official retribution."
The agency, however, denies that media attention prompted it to criminally cite Rep. Brown. As quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron contended the agency "actually has been working for months reviewing policy." Notwithstanding the agency claim of coincidence –
· The citation was issued only after a meeting between Undersecretary Rey and Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth following publication of the whistleblower complaint;
· The Forest Service is withholding the approximately $4,000 civil assessment for its costs in suppressing the fire, pending a national review of its forest fire enforcement policy; and
· The U.S. Department Agriculture Office of Inspector General will investigate the whistleblower complaint alleging extortion by Rep. Brown and violations of agency policies by top officials. "Incidents like this show that the wheels of justice are misaligned to shield the politically connected," added Ruch, noting that the Forest Service even offered Rep. Brown a federal grant to offset his fine and penalties. An agency investigation found that Brown was responsible for the escaped fire and was totally unprepared to contain it. Brown was found at the scene with no hand tools, two garbage cans filled with water but no means, other than a bucket, of delivering the water to the fire. "If Henry Brown was not a Member of Congress, he would have had the book thrown at him."