Grassley, Lee press for Justice probe of Moonlight Fire evidence tampering

APRIL 4, 2015

Justice officials have yet to respond to the letter co-written by Sens. Grassley, shown here, and...A California wildfire that sparked allegations of corruption and evidence-tampering among federal agencies has caught the attentionof the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, are pressing the Department of Justice on whether it has launched a probe of the U.S. attorneys or U.S. Forest Service officials involved in an alleged cover-up of a botched state investigation into California's 2007 Moonlight Fire.

A spokesman for the Eastern District of California U.S. Attorney's Office told the Washington Examiner the Justice Department had received the letter from the two senators and "will respond as appropriate."

The Justice inspector general was copied on the letter to Acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates and is also reviewing it, a spokesman said. However, unlike other agencies, the Justice watchdog does not have the primary authority to investigate alleged attorney misconduct; Instead, the Office of Professional Responsibility has jurisdiction over the misconduct of the agency's attorneys.

Justice officials have yet to respond to the Grassley-Lee letter, said a congressional aide who declined to be named. The aide said the letter marks an early step in what may eventually develop into a full-blown investigation, depending on how the agency responds.
Grassley and Lee gave the Justice Department until April 10 to brief the committee on how it plans to handle the allegations against its own employees and those of the U.S. Forest Service.

The blaze burned 65,000 acres of California land that year including 45,000 that belonged to the federal government and cost the timber company blamed for igniting the flames, Sierra Pacific, $122 million after it settled the first round of litigation in 2012.
The settlement was hailed as the "largest recovery ever received by the United States for damages caused by a forest fire," according to the Department of Agriculture.

Within days after the fire died down, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire, and the Forest Service concluded that bulldozers hired by Sierra Pacific had sparked the conflagration by striking rocks.

Sierra Pacific, a family-owned but highly profitable lumber producer, was dragged into both federal and state court as the government pursued damages for its work extinguishing the blaze and the blaze's destruction.

While Justice Department prosecutors forced the timber company into the punishing settlement, the Plumas County, California, Superior Court threw the case out in February 2014 after discovering "repeated and egregious" legal abuses in Cal Fire's initial investigation, including an "institutional policy of destroying evidence."

The case is now back before the same federal court in which Sierra Pacific was first tried. The company's defense attorneys allege a concerted effort by federal prosecutors to cover up substantial evidence that could have discredited the investigation that provided the grounds for the $122 million settlement.

"Accountability for prosecutors fulfills a basic expectation from the general public that the government will be held to the same standards as everyone else," Grassley and Lee wrote in their letter. "If anything, United States investigators and prosecutors who occupy positions of public trust and exercise significant discretion afforded them in enforcing the law should be held to a higher standard."

Sierra Pacific's defense team argues, among other things, that Cal Fire was motivated to fault the deep-pocketed timber company for the blaze so it could siphon damages into a slush fund misleadingly called the "California District Attorneys Association Wild-land Fire Training and Equipment Fund."

The fund, referenced in court documents as "WiFITER," was in fact controlled by Cal Fire, not the California District Attorneys Association.

Lawyers for Sierra Pacific highlighted the testimony of Robert Wright, a leading Justice Department official on the original prosecution team, in 2014 court filings obtained by theExaminer.

Wright blew the whistle on misconduct in the Eastern District of California Attorney's Office. He detailed "the pressure exerted upon him within the U.S. Attorney's office to withhold information damaging to other wildfire matters, his staunch refusal to do so, and his subsequent removal from the federal Moonlight Fire litigation in January 2010 by his immediate supervisor."

The government essentially argued in its reply that because Sierra Pacific was deemed responsible for the Moonlight Fire, no subsequent efforts to conceal the botched investigation should matter, defense attorneys for the timber company asserted in documents filed March 9.

"During the investigation of this fire, the government found what it wanted to find and either covered up or destroyed contrary or harmful evidence," Sierra Pacific attorneys argued in the most recent filing.

The case will be back in court April 13 for a hearing that will determine whether the minimum threshold for "fraud on the court" has been met. If so, the litigation will proceed.