Washington, DC — One day after a notice of a fine for a forest fire set by a prominent Republican congressman was put into the mail, a top political appointee ordered it recalled. The fine against U.S. Representative Henry Brown (R-South Carolina) was then reduced contrary to agency procedures, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
For more than four years, Rep. Brown had refused to pay charges assessed by the U.S. Forest Service for a fire he set on his own property which burned out of control, spreading to a neighboring national forest. On March 12, 2008, the Forest Service finally issued a notice of indebtedness by certified mail against Rep. Brown charging him for the cost of putting out the fire with interest for ignoring earlier billings.
The next day, however, came frantic orders to get the certified letter back at the behest of U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey. In a March 14, 2008 memo to file, Richard Anderson of Forest Service Claims Management wrote:
“Michael Clonts (ASC for Budget and Finance) called me...and asked me if I could ‘pull back that letter’, he went on to say...Mark Rey would be testifying before a U.S. House of Representatives committee of which Henry Brown was a member and Mark Rey did not want Henry Brown to receive the Notice of Indebtedness. I told Michael I would do my best to retrieve the letter.”
The letter was retrieved. Under lobbying pressure from Rep. Brown, who personally contacted Forest Service staff, his fine was reduced by waiving more than $1,000 in penalties. On April 11, 2008, Rep. Brown, who is a member of the House subcommittee which oversees the Forest Service, finally paid the original $4747 civil assessment to cover fire suppression costs. He had earlier paid a $250 criminal fine for the underlying offense following charges of obstruction of justice by Forest Service special agents.
“This is ticket fixing at the highest levels,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch who obtained the records under the Freedom of Information Act. “The way the Bush administration works, a political appointee like Mark Rey can merely snap his fingers to send the Forest Service into a mad scramble to undo a long overdue act of law enforcement.”
Several internal reviews had affirmed that the Forest Service was required to assess the civil penalty for suppression costs and was more than justified in charging interest after Rep. Brown refused to honor billings dating back to 2005.
“In the twilight of the Bush administration, Mark Rey will likely have returned to lobbying for timber interests by the time another investigation is completed, while Rep. Brown will be immune from ethics charges when this session ends in a few weeks,” Ruch added. “Hopefully this case of influence peddling will convince the next administration to insulate resource law enforcement from political interference.”