The Moonlight Fire ignited on Labor Day 2007 in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Two weeks later, the fire had claimed 65,000 acres, almost 45,000 in the Lassen and Plumas National Forests. Seven years later, the Moonlight Fire has laid waste to the idea that government officials — state and federal investigators and prosecutors, some still on the job — can be counted on to conduct an honest investigation and ethical prosecution of those responsible for starting a forest fire.
"Corrupt and tainted," "egregious," and "reprehensible" and "governmental corruption": These are not the phrases of lawyers for those accused of starting the fire. They are the words of California Superior Court Judge Leslie C. Nichols in ending the state lawsuits stemming from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's (Cal Fire's) fraud-filled Moonlight Fire investigation and awarding full compensatory attorney fees and expenses of more than $32 million to the defendants.
But the California officials did not act alone. The investigation and prosecution was a joint federal-state enterprise — a corrupt conspiracy, really — and attorneys for the defendants in the federal case are now asking a federal judge to set aside the 2012 settlement agreement (a $55 million payment and the transfer 22,500 acres to the United States) forced on them as a result of the "corrupt and tainted" fire investigation.
Their motion sometimes reads like a page-turning whodunit — except it's the "all-in" government investigators and prosecutors who engage in a corrupt conspiracy against the big, bad corporate interests and logging companies. Consider some of what the motion alleges:
• Investigators were so hell-bent on pinning the blame on Sierra Pacific Industries and other deep-pocketed defendants that they ignored their initial origin-of-fire findings and manufactured evidence.
• Investigators turned a blind eye to two individuals who were in, or might have been in, the forest the day the fire started. One was cutting firewood with an illegally modified chainsaw. The other was a suspected (later convicted) arsonist who worked for the U.S. Forest Service — as a battalion chief for fire prevention, no less — and had arrived in the area weeks before the fire.
• State and federal prosecutors failed to disclose evidence damaging to the government and sat by as investigators perjured themselves.
• One veteran federal prosecutor, E. Robert Wright, was taken off the case — presumably because he insisted that damaging evidence be handed over to defendants in fire cases. Another, Eric Overby, left the investigation in disgust, but not before unburdening himself to Sierra Pacific's lead counsel.
Why were Cal Fire investigators so committed to going after Sierra Pacific and the other defendants in the case? Beyond targeting companies that could pay, Cal Fire officials benefited professionally and even financially through a fund (the Wildland Fire Investigation Training and Equipment Fund) that operated outside state fiscal controls or legislative oversight — a fund that would have received a chunk of the proposed $8.1 million payment to California in state Moonlight Fire settlement.
The investigation was a fiasco from its inception. One Forest Service worker visited the lookout tower where the fire was said to have been spotted. She found the spotter engrossed in urinating on his bare feet (good for athlete's foot fungus, he claimed) with marijuana paraphernalia and odor in the cabin. ("My bad," he apologized.)
No, you cannot make this stuff up, but the victims in the Moonlight are all too real, as well. There are, of course, the defendants who were fraudulently induced into the settlement in the federal case. One was forced into bankruptcy. There are, too, the state and federal investigators and prosecutors who do their jobs with honesty and integrity. The misconduct of the investigators in Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the prosecutors in the California attorney general's office and the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California, has tarred all civil servants.
But there are also less immediate but no less important victims: members of the public, who have every right to expect forest fire investigations will be uncorrupt and untainted, because fire prevention — lives and livelihoods — depend on this, especially in Oregon and other parts of the West. Annother victim: a legal system that's built on prosecutors being committed to the requirements of justice rather than the expediencies of winning at all cost.
In short, "scorched earth" should remain the province of the fire, not the approach of our governments' fire investigators and prosecutors.