We hope this is not the Watergate scandal, déjà vu: a Plumas County Superior Court judge held February 4 that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) “destroyed evidence” that was critical to a case CalFire had launched against Sierra Pacific as a result of the 2007 Moonlight Fire.
Judge Leslie Nichols, a retired judge appointed to handle the case, said in his ruling: “The court finds that CalFire’s actions initiating, maintaining and prosecuting this action, to the present time, is corrupt and tainted. … CalFire failed to comply with discovery obligations, and its repeated failure was willful. … (The agency) engaged in a systematic campaign of misdirection with the purpose of recovering money from (Sierra Pacific).”
The judge ordered CalFire to pay Sierra Pacific and others more than $30 million in penalties, costs and legal fees. CalFire spokeswoman Janet Upton said the agency “vigorously disputes many of the facts and legal findings in the orders,” and is “assessing our next steps, up to and including appeal.”
The judge also criticized the Attorney General’s Office, stating: “The sense of disappointment and distress conveyed by the court is so palpable, because it recalls no instance in experience over 47 years as an advocate and as a judge, in which the conduct of the Attorney General so thoroughly departed from the high standard it represents and, in every other instance, has exemplified.”
At issue was a suit filed by CalFire seeking $8 million from taxpayers whom the agency accused of starting fire. Sierra Pacific officials denied the charges, and said shortcomings at CalFire allowed the fire to rage out of control.
CalFire was also involved in questionable behavior before the case went to trial. In the agency’s billing sent to Sierra Pacific in 2009, it demanded the company make two payments; one for $7.7 million to the state, and another for $400,000 to an account belonging to a nonprofit organization administered by CalFire. The funds in that account had been used for off-the-books purchases of items such as 600 digital cameras and 26 evidence sheds. In Sierra Pacific’s investigation into CalFire’s demand for payment, the company discovered the very unusual account, named “Wildland Fire Investigation Training and Equipment Fund,” sometimes referred to as “WiFiter.” (Sources: The Sacramento Bee, February 6; Wildfire Today blog, accessed February 6.)