- Associated Press - Friday, October 10, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A California timber company accused of starting a 102-square-mile wildfire is seeking to undo a $47 million legal settlement because of alleged misdeeds by investigators and prosecutors.

Sierra Pacific Industries filed hundreds of pages of court documents Thursday in federal court seeking to re-open a case settled in 2012. The settlement also included Sierra Pacific transferring 22,500 acres of land to the state of California.

State and federal prosecutors and investigators concluded that the state’s largest timber company was responsible for a 2007 wildfire that consumed 40,000 acres of national forest in Northern California, as well as another 25,000 acres.

A state court judge in February found that California officials lied and hid evidence, and the judge ordered the state to pay the company $30 million. The company is citing the same evidence to re-open the federal case.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is appealing the state judge’s decision. U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento said Friday that his office is reviewing the court papers filed by Sierra Pacific.

Wagner said he has the “utmost confidence” in the two federal prosecutors Sierra Pacific claims acted inappropriately, and the pair recently received the Attorney General’s award, which Wagner said is the U.S. Department of Justice’s highest honor for prosecutors.

The fire began on Labor Day 2007 in remote Northern California just south of Susanville, which is 220 miles north of Sacramento.

State and federal fire investigators concluded that a bulldozer hired by Sierra Pacific was to blame when its front blade nicked a rock and sparked.

On Aug. 4, 2009, CalFire sent the company a letter demanding $8.1 million to compensate it for responding to the fire, including a $400,000 payment to a special CalFire training program. Before the company responded, California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a lawsuit in Plumas County. Three weeks later, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento filed a similar lawsuit in federal court.

Federal and state authorities agreed to work together on both lawsuits, which Sierra Pacific fought until an adverse ruling in federal court barring the company from blaming others for the fire prompted it to settle that lawsuit in 2012.

The next year, a state audit found that the CalFire training program referenced in 2009 was improperly operating independently of centralized control. The audit also showed Sierra Pacific attorneys that CalFire lawyers had withheld key documents related to the program that were required to be turned over in state and federal courts.

A Plumas County judge also found that the lead CalFire investigator’s testimony about where and how the fire was started was not credible, among several other deficiencies with the government’s prosecution of the lawsuit.

“Cal Fire’s actions initiating, maintaining and prosecuting this action, to the present time, is corrupt and tainted,” Judge Leslie C. Nichols concluded.

Nichols said CalFire withheld documents for months, destroyed evidence and engaged in a campaign of misdirection with the purpose of recovering money from Sierra Pacific.

Sierra Pacific is presenting the same evidence in federal court.

“We strongly disagree with the conclusions of the judge,” CalFire spokeswoman Janet Upton said.



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