“WASHINGTON, DC – June 4 – For more than four years, a prominent Republican congressman refused to pay charges assessed by the U.S. Forest Service for a fire he set which burned out of control, according to agency records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Political intervention repeatedly delayed both billing and collecting from U.S. Representative Henry Brown (R-South Carolina), including a delinquent payment demand that was retracted this March, only to be re-issued in April with more than $1,000 in penalties waived.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 PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “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 U.S. 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.”
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