When two-term Rep. Henry E. Brown Jr. (R-S.C.) burned brush on his Cordesville tree farm March 5, gusts of wind blew the fire onto the adjacent Francis Marion National Forest, causing at least $4,000 in damage to 20 acres.
On Sept. 8 came some unexpected fallout.
In a detailed "whistle-blower" complaint sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspector general, two law enforcement officials with the department's Forest Service charged that Brown used his influence with top USDA and Forest Service officials to get a $250 fine for the incident quashed.
On Friday, overturning earlier internal directives to "take no action" against Brown, Forest Service headquarters in Washington announced that the lawmaker would be served with a violation notice.
"We take whistle-blower complaints very seriously," said Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron. He said the agency "disagrees with a substantial part of the allegations," but he declined to comment on specifics. "The truth is going to be determined by the office of the inspector general," he said.
Brown, reached by telephone in South Carolina, acknowledged discussing inconsistencies in enforcement policy at a late spring meeting in his Capitol Hill office with Mark E. Rey, undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, and Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.
But he denied threatening or pressuring them or other officials after being advised by lower-level officials that he would be cited for allowing his fire to jump to the national forest.
"I don't believe I broke a law or acted negligently," said Brown, who had permission from the South Carolina Forestry Commission to conduct the burn. "Acting solely as a private citizen, I voiced this to authorities. I never intended to use my position to further my case."
"I think what they perceived was that I was trying to curry some favors when all I was doing was trying to protect my innocence," he added. " . . . No innocent person should be prosecuted."
But the officials who filed the complaint give a different account. It was submitted by John L. Gregory, a 34-year veteran of the agency and a special agent in charge of the Forest Service's Southern region, and John "Andy" Sadler, who works under Gregory in Columbia, S.C.
Sadler said in a telephone interview that during a March 26 conference call, which included Forest Supervisor Jerome Thomas, Brown "was not pleased" to be advised that he would be cited for a misdemeanor and fined $250, well below the maximum $5,000 fine or six months in jail, or both. "Congressman Brown expressed concern that his political opponents would somehow find out and use the [violation notice] against him and that he would be forced to disclose the VN on his ethics updates," Sadler said.
According to the complaint, "During this call, Congressman Brown stated that if the Forest Service persisted and issued a VN, Forest Service programs might need to be scrutinized more closely."
Brown said he recalls speaking only of the need for a change in the statute to give authorities more discretion to waive violations when no negligence is involved.
He was elected to Congress with little opposition in 2000 as a tax-cutting conservative Republican, after nearly 30 years working for the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain and serving in state offices.
The complaint disputes Brown's contention that he acted responsibly in setting his brush fire. It says a state official advised him that "weather conditions were such that it would not be a good day to conduct the burn," and it adds that Brown was unaware that his fire had jumped a bulldozed barrier and spread to the public forest.
On April 21, the complaint says, a Forest Service official hand-carried a letter to Brown from Bosworth stating, "Unfortunately, as we discussed by phone, the code currently does not contain much flexibility." Bosworth said he would discuss with the law enforcement unit whether there was "any opportunity to allow more discretion when the escaped fire was entirely inadvertent."
A Forest Service financial officer determined April 29 that Brown would also have to be billed for the damage. But several days later, another official stated at a Forest Service meeting that Bosworth "had told Congressman Brown that the agency would not bill him."
Gregory said in a telephone interview that he brought the situation to the attention of the U.S. attorney's office in Columbia and was told, "Treat him like anybody else."
But on the same day, May 7, Gregory was advised by the Forest Service's deputy director of law enforcement that Bosworth "is directing you not to issue Congressman Brown a violation notice for allowing a fire to escape," according to the whistle-blower complaint.
Asked why he filed the whistle-blower complaint, Gregory said: "After 51/2 months of trying to get the agency to do the right thing, Andy and I flat gave up and did what we had to do."