Washington, DC — The U.S. Forest Service is wrongly withholding information both about assaults and threats against its own employees and facilities, as well as how many law enforcement agents have been diverted away from criminal investigations to personnel probes, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). A recent PEER survey of Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations (LEI) staff reflects widespread perceptions that serious criminal enforcement is being sacrificed to concentrate on petty and retaliatory internal probes.
Forest Service personnel report attacks and threats more than six times those from all three other federal land management agencies combined, according to statistics gathered by PEER. These violence incidents are also on the rise. In 2012, the agency reported 419 incidents compared with only 93 a decade earlier.
Earlier this year when PEER requested the incident summaries for 2013 from a number of agencies, only the Forest service balked, sending a letter demanding extensive justification, including the unusual request for fundraising and other organizational materials as a condition of processing the request. As stated in agency correspondence dated February 20:
“In addition to supplying information addressing each of the above fee waiver factors, you might consider submitting copies of the articles of incorporation of your organization, the constitution and bylaws of the organization, and publications of your organization including, but not limited to, newsletters, membership brochures, and fundraising solicitations.”
“The Forest Service should be publicly posting these assault summaries, not hiding them,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that many of these incidents are quite serious. “Forest Service law enforcement has suffered three officer deaths in the line of duty in recent years, including one this March.”
At the same time, current LE&I leadership has directed that criminal investigators be used to conduct non-criminal investigations of fellow employees. To date, however, LE&I has refused to divulge how many Special Agents are assigned to non-criminal cases, what outcomes have been produced or at what cost.
In a PEER survey of all LE&I personnel released last month, several cited this emphasis on internal affairs assignments as hampering the agency’s ability to meet its mission. In essays concerning how to best improve LE&I one law enforcement officer wrote “Not focusing on internal investigations” and another added “Focus on the apprehension of criminals rather than treating LEI employees as the criminals.” A Special Agent recommended:
“We should be emphasizing our main mission which is resource investigation…we are going to experience an increase in timber theft with a workforce who knows NOTHING about combating it. It’s history repeating itself, and it’s a shame.” [Emphasis in the original]
Compounding problems is that LE&I has suffered a sudden, unexplained 15% budget shortfall in the current fiscal year, causing some officers to be ordered off patrol to save on gasoline expenses.
“Especially in times of scarce resources, Forest Service law enforcement should concentrate on protecting the people and lands entrusted to its care, not tracking down missing paper clips or whether someone is taking too many bathroom breaks,” Ruch added. “Apparently, the Forest Service does not want Congress or the public to know how many senior criminal investigators have been reduced to hall monitors.”