Don’t lie, cheat or steal … the government hates competition. That’s an ancient phrase that is sometimes visionary. Sierra Pacific Industries’ experiences with the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire following the so-called Moonlight Fire is one example.

Some Calaveras County residents disapprove of SPI’s timber harvesting methods. However, SPI follows California’s voluminous Forest Practices Act. Objective people will judge cases on their merits.

The Moonlight Fire began in Plumas County on Sept. 3, 2007, and burned 65,000 acres, including 45,000 acres of national forest land.

Both the USFS and Cal Fire investigated to determine the fire’s point of origin and cause of ignition. If human activity turned out to be responsible, the at-fault party or parties would appropriately be charged for all damages, providing they had money. An SPI logging contractor had been working in the area. SPI had money. The investigators reported that the contractor’s bulldozer blade had struck a rock, creating a spark that ignited dry woody material. This is possible.

But investigators focused on SPI, discounting other potential causes: 1) someone had been operating a chainsaw lacking a spark arrestor in the area, 2) a USFS employee who had previously been suspected of arson was possibly in the area also. Were they ignored because they lacked money in addition to one being a USFS employee?

Both agencies sued SPI and SPI’s logging contractor. The USFS suit was heard first. The presiding judge ruled SPI could be held responsible even if the company was not at fault. Really?

Although SPI’s attorneys insisted at that time the judge’s interpretation was wrong, the company agreed to settle with the federal government, paying a $55 million fine and relinquishing 22,500 acres of forest land. That seemed to be the best resolution at the time since further efforts could have resulted in vastly higher penalties, and success appeared unlikely considering the judge’s ruling. However, SPI continued investigating, uncovering ample reasons to seek justice.

They learned attorneys from California’s Attorney General’s office and the U.S. Attorney had withheld evidence that would be beneficial to SPI. All attorneys know the prosecution is obligated by law to provide the defense with all such evidence. After uncovering the illegal deceit the company returned to court. Superior Court Judge Leslie C. Nichols emphatically criticized Cal Fire and its attorneys.

Quoting a small portion of Judge Nichols’ declarations: “This court finds that Cal Fire’s actions initiating, maintaining and prosecuting this action, to the present time, is corrupt and tainted. The agency withheld documents for months and destroyed evidence critical to the case. The court recalls no instance in experiences of over 47 years as an advocate and as a judge, in which the conduct of the Attorney General (Cal Fire’s lawyers) so thoroughly departed from the high standards it represents.”

Judge Nichols ordered Cal Fire to pay $24.2 million to SPI, including legal fees and penalties.

Cal Fire naturally disagreed, disputing many of the judge’s legal findings in the orders and has appealed the decision. Considering Cal Fire’s illegal behavior, the chances of success appear minimal, but the fire agency may fight until the bitter end. After all, it is taxpayer money at stake, not its own.

SPI returned to court in an effort to cancel the agreement previously made with the federal government. Logically, SPI should prevail because of the illegal hiding and destroying of evidence preceding the logging company’s decision to accept what appeared at the time to be the best choice. The U. S. Department of Justice attempted to disqualify SPI’s entire legal team, arguing that E. Robert Wright, a former DOJ attorney, gave SPI’s attorneys a 15-page sworn statement that raised serious questions concerning possible suppression of evidence that would clear SPI. DOJ argued that Wright knew confidential information and he was involved in a conflict of interest by disclosing it.

If a public agency wasn’t involved, the argument may have been valid, but the government is held to a higher standard. The U. S. District Attorney’s Office appears to be grasping at straws; surely they are aware of a 1935 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Berger v. United States. The justices ruled that U.S. attorneys are representatives “not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose interest is not that it will win a case, but that justice be done.”

Federal District Judge William Shubb ignored DOJ’s requests to disqualify SPI’s legal team and requested more briefing on the issues of government misconduct and possible fraud on the court. Time will reveal the final outcome.

Hopefully this contemptible event is an aberration. SPI released a statement that Cal Fire and the USFS had previously been honorable.

The luster earned by many years of reputable efforts by personnel at Cal Fire, the USFS and California’s Attorney General’s Office has been tarnished by a few conniving scoundrels. Unless and until the heat gets unbearable, don’t expect apologies from department heads.

How sad.

Ted Shannon is a Mokelumne Hill resident and retired California Highway Patrol officer. Contact him at tsuj12@yahoo.com.

Ted Shannon is retired California Highway Patrol officer and  Mokelumne Hill resident. Contact him at tsuj12@yahoo.com.

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