Who Killed the Timber Task Force?

Weyerhaeuser has been an F.O.B. since 1980. Did that friendship involve the spiking of a timber theft investigation that might have embarassed both the northwest timber giant and the forest service?

On April 6, 1995, Al Marion received a surprising letter from his boss, US Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas. At the time, Marion was supervisor of an independent investigative bureau of the Forest Service known as the Timber Theft Task Force, which Congress established in 1991 to pursue white-collar timber crimes in California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. Nobody expected the task force to do much more than inoculate the Forest Service against critics, but it won a string of stunning convictions, including a record-setting $3.2 million case against the Columbia River Scaling Bureau in 1993. Later that year, Marion’s 10-man team launched a law enforcement initiative unprecedented at the Forest Service—three concurrent investigations, into allegations of million-dollar timber theft, accounting fraud, and obstruction of justice by Forest Service field managers.

The task force was midstride in this three-pronged operation when Marion received Chief Thomas’ letter, politely thanking him and his investigators for their “outstanding contributions” and declaring that the task force had “accomplished its mission.” Their jobs were eliminated, effective immediately.

Not everyone agreed that Marion’s unit had finished its work. Assistant US Attorney Jeff Kent, who is responsible for timber theft cases in the Northwest and helped prosecute the Columbia River Scaling Bureau, wrote the Office of Inspector General, which has oversight over the Forest Service, in protest: “Even as Chief of Special Prosecutions in Chicago, responsible for corruption and organized crime cases, I have never encountered in my 20 years as a prosecutor such a concerted effort by management to impede and sabotage the Congressionally mandated mission [of a group like the task force] or such Machiavellian maneuvers.”

Thomas promised to replace the task force with a national timber theft “cadre.” But none materialized, even though the House Appropriations Committee estimates that timber theft costs the Forest Service $10 million to $100 million a year, which—according to former Forest Service Chief F. Dale Robertson—may represent 10 percent of its total timber harvest. A subsequent audit by the Inspector General in 1996 found that the problem had only gotten worse.

Federal prosecutor Kent has been ordered by the Department of Justice not to discuss the situation with reporters. Fearing retaliation, Marion also declines to comment, even though he has since retired to suburban Portland (he worries about former task force members who remain in the agency). Aside from a protest paper distributed two years ago by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which advocates on many federal issues, the task force and the entire issue of large-scale timber theft have nearly vanished. (PEER will, however, try to revive the subject by lobbying to reinstate the task force when Congress votes on the Forest Service budget next week.)

Later this year, Marion and six former task force investigators hope to win back their jobs, with help from attorneys at PEER and the Government Accountability Project, in a lawsuit filed under the Whistleblowers Protection Act. This suit, Crisafi et al. v. US Department of Agriculture, the largest case ever brought under the Whistleblowers Act, is currently pending before federal Administrative Judge James Freet in Seattle. The case raises not only alleged retribution against the Timber Theft Task Force, and its abandoned investigations, but also an astonishing string of Forest Service documents, internal administration correspondence, and sworn affidavits that expose an apparent effort by senior officials in the Clinton administration to scuttle the crack unit just as its investigators were probing multimillion-dollar allegations against some of the Forest Service’s biggest clients and, as it turns out, one of the president’s oldest allies.

The Denver briefing

On March 7, 1995, in a Denver hotel room, the night before a Forest Service law enforcement convention and less than a month before the task force would be dismantled, Marion briefed Chief Thomas and his newly appointed director of law enforcement, Manny Martinez. Marion outlined his unit’s three active investigations, code-named “Shuffle,” “Model T,” and “Rodeo.” Of the three, Rodeo was probably the most sensitive. It targeted the largest private timber company in the world, the Federal Way­based Weyerhaeuser Co., for allegedly harvesting up to 66,000 trees, worth between $1 million and $3 million, from the Winema National Forest near Klamath Falls in Southern Oregon. Rodeo also involved a delicate internal investigation of three Forest Service field offices suspected of obstructing the investigation by tipping off Weyerhaeuser, quieting informants with promotions, and destroying pertinent documents.

An independent Forest Service review of Rodeo had already concluded that “the probability of conviction is good, as is the probability of civil recovery.” And, at least for that night in Denver, Chief Thomas seemed supportive. According to Marion’s day-timer diary notes, which have been submitted as evidence in the whistle-blower case, “The Chief said he would give us 18 months to finish the cases.” This accords with handwritten orders from law enforcement director Martinez (also submitted as evidence) and an earlier internal Forest Service recommendation that $300,000 be directed to the Rodeo investigation through 1997.

Marion knew Rodeo was a volatile case. Internal investigations are never popular—his staff had been threatened on more than one occasion—and Weyerhaeuser was a Fortune 500 firm, valued at more than $13 billion at the time, with powerful political connections.

Al Marion left Chief Thomas’ hotel room at about 11pm. Twenty-nine days later, in one of his first tasks as the Forest Service’s law enforcement director, Manny Martinez flew to Portland for a secret meeting with Marion and his staff where he hand-delivered Thomas’ order to disband the task force.

“Blood on the trees”

Weyerhaeuser and Bill Clinton have not always been friends. Twenty years ago, in Clinton’s early days as governor of Arkansas, the forest products industry was the biggest employer in the state, especially dominating its pine-forested southern counties. Weyerhaeuser was a relative newcomer to Arkansas, having only recently purchased 1.8 million forested acres in the state’s southwest corner. It set up local headquarters in Hot Springs, the young governor’s hometown, and began clear-cutting its property—a departure from the practice of older Arkansas timber firms, which tended to cut selectively. Weyerhaeuser’s aggressiveness upset competitors, environmentalists, and Clinton himself; in 1978, early in his first term, he appointed an executive timber management policy group to propose new forestry restrictions.

Weyerhaeuser ally and then­Arkansas Forestry Association president John Ed Anthony took charge of the industry’s counterattack. This mainly meant rallying the yellow-dog Democrats of Southern Arkansas against the “fair-haired boy” in the governor’s mansion. Angry loggers, whipped up by Anthony and worried that new forestry restrictions would cost them their jobs, gathered for anti-Clinton demonstrations.

“Whenever I go south of Little Rock, there’s blood on the trees!” Clinton barked to Anthony when the two first met, in the small timber stronghold of Pine Bluff during the campaign summer of 1980. “It’s my blood!” he bellowed, “and I want it stopped!” As Anthony now recalls, he looked Clinton in the eye and fired back: “Governor, we haven’t even begun to mobilize.”

That November, Clinton lost the governorship to Republican businessman Frank White, who credits his victory to the industry attacks Anthony organized against the future president. “Clinton filled his staff with wacko environmentalists who wanted to pretty much micromanage timber,” White recalls in a heavy Razorback drawl. “The industry didn’t like him worth flip.”

Almost immediately after the loss, Clinton went to work on his re-election campaign. He began with television ads that apologized to industry leaders for his over-reaching first term. Then he took a job at Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, a noted Little Rock law firm that represents Weyerhaeuser in its Arkansas dealings. “He made amends with the forest industry,” says Anthony, “moderated his positions completely.” “Clinton became a good governor for our business and industry,” adds Weyerhaeuser’s Arkansas government affairs manager Thedford Collins. Stephen Smith, who directed Clinton’s first-term timber policy and was one of the governor’s top aides, sees it differently: “He just bent over and kissed their ass.” (Smith, who in 1995 pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor conspiracy charge arising from a Whitewater investigation and served 100 hours of community service, is now a professor of communications at the University of Arkansas.)

Clinton won back his seat from White in 1982 and, sustaining his kinder, gentler approach to the timber industry, began meeting regularly with Weyerhaeuser. “It’s just a way for us to share what’s on our minds,” former Weyerhaeuser CEO John Creighton (who retired last December) explained to Arkansas Business magazine last year. Although Weyerhaeuser showers most of its campaign contributions on Republicans in Congress—it’s company policy not to contribute to presidential campaigns—Weyerhaeuser lobbyist Jeff Trinca says the timber giant maintains good relations with the White House through its Arkansas connections, specifically through “Mac and Bruce”—Mac McClarty, the president’s oldest friend and original chief of staff, and White House counsel Bruce Lindsey, a former partner at Wright, Lindsey & Jennings. (Lindsey’s father, Bruce Sr., was one of the firm’s founders.)

The “company”gets the cut out

Founded in 1905 as a division of the Department of Agriculture, the US Forest Service has always treated trees as a crop and timber companies as clients. Amongst themselves, Forest Service field managers even refer to their agency as “the company” and timber management as “getting the cut out.” In 1993, a congressional inquiry found that Forest Service contracts with timber companies conflicted with the agency’s responsibility for law enforcement oversight in the national forests. Citing “numerous reports over the years detailing the problems with law enforcement within the Forest Service, particularly the problem of interference with criminal investigations by non-law-enforcement personnel,” Congress appropriated an additional $1 million to the agency for Al Marion’s unit, which was renamed the Timber Theft Investigative Bureau.

Thomas was appointed Forest Service chief later that year, over complaints from some agency veterans and against his own better judgment. (His wife was dying of cancer, but insisted he take the job.) The agency was a mess. Congress followed its excoriating ’93 hearings with budget cuts in ’94. Environmentalists heckled Thomas, a wildlife biologist by training, for not living up to their unrealistic expectations of reform. He resigned in 1996, after less than three years as Forest Service chief, to join the University of Montana’s School of Forestry.

Due to the pending whistle-blower litigation, Thomas won’t comment on Rodeo or Marion’s task force, but he was deposed for the case last summer in Missoula. According to court records of that encounter, Thomas exploded at insinuations that the White House killed the unit: “There is only one person that can make the decision to terminate the [task force],” he said. “That’s the chief of the Forest Service. My name is Jack Ward Thomas, and I will spell it again. I made that determination.” Thomas testified that the task force had “outlived its usefulness.” He described it as only “marginally” effective, staffed by sloppy investigators and loose cannons. He said the Rodeo case never had merit.

A shut and open case

Nevertheless, the Forest Service has yet to exonerate Weyerhaeuser. In fact, according to its Northwest special agent in charge of law enforcement, Tom Lyons, the case is still open.

The previously sealed “Operation Rodeo Report of Investigation,” dated February 2, 1995, alleges that Weyerhaeuser’s Klamath Falls division illegally harvested thousands of trees (up to 6 million board feet) above and beyond its Forest Service contract. (Weyerhaeuser has since sold its Klamath Falls division.) The report also shows the investigators suspected Weyerhaeuser of illegally exporting lumber harvested from Forest Service land and unduly benefiting from an accounting “error” in its contract. “In summary,” the report concludes, “the Government was giving Government timber away for free.” Timber Theft investigators estimated that the total benefit to Weyerhaeuser could reach more than $3 million, matching the Columbia River case, the largest in Forest Service history.

Rodeo’s concurrent internal affairs investigation revealed that once the sale came under suspicion, Forest Service field managers granted Weyerhaeuser unprecedented, possibly illegal retroactive permission to cut timber outside its contract. “We felt we need to protect [Weyerhaeuser] from violating the contract,” one Forest Service representative explained in a sworn affidavit to task force investigators. The Rodeo report further alleges that Forest Service personnel tipped Weyerhaeuser off to the undercover task force investigation and destroyed pertinent Weyerhaeuser files two days prior to their intended seizure by investigators. According to the report, a Forest Service supervisor explained that he exposed the covert probe, “because he couldn’t afford to jeopardize his good working relationship with Weyerhaeuser.” Investigators were also concerned about the uniquely generous “new math” used to calculate Weyerhaeuser’s contract, which further benefited the company.

For its part, Weyerhaeuser says it knew nothing of Operation Rodeo until PEER distributed its white paper on the case in 1996. “We were mystified,” Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal says. “When that report came out, we did an internal investigation . . . talked to a lot of people, some of whom no longer work for the company, and found no new information.” Weyerhaeuser’s internal review did uncover some old business—an $11,000 fine paid to the Forest Service in 1995 for “essentially not following the letter of the contract,” says Mendizabal—which he says may explain the task force investigation. Mendizabal explains further that the Klamath Falls sale in question was complicated by the Forest Service’s inconsistent and “confusing” marking system. He denies that Weyerhaeuser ever exported timber harvested from national forest land and, despite Forest Service regional director Lyons’ current declaration that the case is still open, says Weyerhaeuser was cleared after a “thorough and complete” Forest Service review.

As for the tips Weyerhaeuser allegedly received from Forest Service managers about the Rodeo probe, Mendizabal says the information never made its way up to headquarters but that he wouldn’t be surprised if field managers and Weyerhaeuser representatives, who “work together almost every day out in the woods [and] have coffee together,” discussed the investigation. (An inconclusive 1996 report from the Inspector General, obtained by Seattle Weekly under the Freedom of Information Act, appears to partially exonerate Forest Service field managers. It notes that Rodeo was “common knowledge” and therefore not privileged information. Task force investigators maintain that their work, including the “peppering” of trees with hidden markers, was secret.)

“In my opinion, [Rodeo] deserved to be followed through and eventually brought to a grand jury,” says Jim Mahr, the assistant US attorney in charge of timber theft prosecutions in Portland at the time and, before that, an FBI agent there. “To my understanding, there was significant interest on the FBI side in keeping [the investigations] going.”

“The evidence is good and current,” Kim Thorsen, the Forest Service’s assistant law enforcement director of investigations concluded in an independent review of the case. It was filed under “leave open and pursue.”

What did the president know?

Today, however, the case against Weyerhaeuser is virtually moot. Forest Chief Thomas now says it was never actionable. The task force investigation report says it is lost because crucial documents are missing—never mind the statute of limitations, which may have long since passed anyway. More important now are the Crisafi whistle-blower case and the attempts by the Forest Service and, perhaps, the Clinton administration to quash the investigation. Tom Devine, an attorney for Marion and the other whistleblowers, contends that Thomas initially supported the task force but was pressured to reverse himself sometime between March 7, 1995, when he was briefed in Denver, and April 6, when the unit was disbanded.

During the intervening month, Thomas met several times with the Forest Service’s supervisors in the Department of Agriculture and with Linton Jordahl, one of his closest Forest Service aides, to discuss the Timber Theft Task Force. Jordahl explains the political dynamic in a deposition he gave in the whistleblower case: “I think [Chief Thomas] listened to and appreciated my advice. However, he is also working, you know, through the Secretary [of Agriculture, Dan Glickman] and the White House, and there’s a tendency by those entities to micro-manage activities within this administration.” Jordahl added that the decision to disband the task force came from senior officials in the Department of Agriculture or “maybe above”—meaning the White House, although he had no personal knowledge of explicit instructions emanating from there.

Jordahl, who is currently stationed in Georgia, is the only witness in the whistle-blower case to agree (in a recent telephone interview) to elaborate on his testimony for the record. He recounts that Department of Agriculture supervisor Brian Burke, who had previously served on President Clinton’s Domestic Policy Council, advocated disbanding the Timber Theft Task Force. Jordahl says that though Burke did not say outright that he was acting on behalf of the president, he “alluded to White House contacts” during the meetings with Chief Thomas. “They micromanage everything,” Jordahl reiterated.

(Citing the pending whistle-blower litigation, Burke and his boss, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Jim Lyons, whom Jordahl’s deposition also names as being at the meetings on the Timber Theft Task Force, refuse to comment on their roles in the disbanding. So do representatives from the FBI field office in Bend Oregon, which consulted task force investigators, the US Attorney’s Office in Portland, the Office of the Inspector General in San Francisco, and spokespeople for the Department of Agriculture.)

If the White House killed the task force, some conspiracy-minded environmentalists reason that Weyerhaeuser must have had something to do with it. Tim Hermach, executive director of the Native Forest Council, claims “that George Weyerhaeuser paid a visit to President Clinton” to persuade him to drop the timber-theft investigations as a “direct quid pro quo” for the company’s endorsement of Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan. But while it’s true that Weyerhaeuser broke with other timber companies to back Clinton’s controversial plan, which was hammered out in Portland in 1993, there is no evidence that George Weyerhaeuser, John Creighton, or any other company representatives met with Clinton or other administration officials during that crucial month in 1995 leading up to the Timber Theft Task Force’s disbanding. (For the record, Weyerhaeuser’s Mendizabal denies that the company broached the subject with its White House contacts.)

Putting on the pressure

There is, however, considerable evidence that the White House was watching the situation closely, and that it worked to dismantle the task force as quietly as possible. It would be difficult to overstate the political pressure that the Department of Agriculture was under during this period. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and his chief of staff had recently resigned under charges that they accepted bribes from companies under Department of Agriculture oversight. The first Republican Congress in 40 years was due to vote within a month on reauthorizing a linchpin environmental protection law, the Endangered Species Act. And Espy’s nominated replacement, Dan Glickman, was about to face a hostile Senate confirmation committee. The last thing the administration wanted was for the Senate to question Glickman about the dismissal of the Timber Theft Task Force.

“They simply did not want anything of controversy coming up during those hearings,” Chief Thomas explained in his deposition. “I think there was orders from above my level that we would take no action… until those hearings were over.” An internal Forest Service e-mail message submitted as evidence in the whistleblower case warned that disbanding the Timber Theft Task Force was “politically sensitive and could result in some significant attention…. If Glickman confirmation is further delayed, the meeting date [to disband the Task Force] will be rescheduled.” Glickman faced the Senate committee on April 21, 1995; the task force was disbanded two weeks later.

“It’s just not credible that this happened behind Clinton’s back,” insists whistle-blower attorney Tom Devine.

Chief Thomas and the Forest Service contended all along that the timber theft investigators weren’t really fired: Rather, their positions were absorbed into the “national cadre” of Forest Service law enforcement agents. This reorganization “distributed our resources more across the country,” Thomas explained in his deposition. “Also we had to deal with downsizing in law enforcement, constraints on budget.”

But even Thomas now concedes that that cadre was never actually established. And an audit of the Forest Service by the Inspector General concluded that timber-theft enforcement only got worse after the task force was disbanded. The largest Northwest timber theft prosecution since then involved only 50 illegally cut cedars. To see the dimensions of the problem, “all you need to do is look at our forests,” says former timber-theft prosecutor Mahr, who left the US Attorney’s Office for private practice because there were no more timber theft cases to prosecute.

“These guys used to go after the most important environmental crimes,” laments their attorney Devine. “Now they’re pulling up pot plants.”Several task-force investigators chose retirement over odious reassignments to Alaska or West Virginia. One, Dennis Shrader, Operation Rodeo’s lead investigator, found himself assigned to a storage closet in the agency’s Portland office. Under the terms of the Whistleblowers Protection Act, the investigators are asking for back pay and reinstatement to positions that allow them to carry on their investigations.

“On a final note,” Assistant US Attorney Jeff Kent concludes in his letter to the Inspector General, “after being involved in these matters for eight years, I frankly have come to have reservations about the independent efficacy of your office to combat the entire problem of timber theft and Forest Service mismanagement. How did this absurd system where timber management winked at timber theft and fraud go undetected by your office? Hopefully, this investigation will be the golden opportunity for your office to send a clear message to Forest Service management that obstruction, retaliation, intrigue, and abuse will no longer be tolerated. Do the right thing, for God’s sake.”

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