Out Loud: FEDS appear to ignore recovery of Mt. Fire costs

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Editor’s note: Jack’s turn again this week.

Shortly after the 2013 Mountain Fire that destroyed homes and caused the evacuation of thousands from our Hill, the cost of suppressing that fire was estimated at about $27 to $28 million in taxpayers’ dollars, the greater portion of which was borne by the U.S. Forest Service.

Two years after the fire — about a year ago — the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection filed its $8.5-million lawsuit against Dr. Tarek M.A. Al-Shawaf, the Arabian founder, owner, chair and president of Saudi Consulting Services, the oldest and largest of Saudi Arabia’s engineering and architectural firms, also known as Saudconsult and self-described as an “engineering powerhouse.”

Al-Shawaf, a former official (director of general pro-jects) in the Saudi government, is the owner of the Mountain Center property on which the fire started.

Clearly, Cal Fire believes it has legal grounds for the recovery of its fire suppression costs from Al-Shawaf, so it would seem that the federal government would file a lawsuit on  those same grounds.

But still, there is no indication that the U.S. government has filed a corresponding suit seeking to recover an estimated $18 million-plus in taxpayers’ monies expended in the Forest Service’s suppression of the Mountain Fire.

About four months ago, the TC contacted the U.S. Forest Service office to learn why no lawsuit had been filed by the federal government seeking to recover taxpayers’ dollars spent fighting the Mountain Fire. The TC was referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.

The TC then contacted Thom Mrozek, the spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, but he indicated he had no information about any such lawsuit. The TC informed Mrozek that only about four months remained on the statute of limitations within which the government could file its action, and Mrozek invited the TC to recontact him at a later date.

Last week, on Wednesday, June 8, the TC again called and emailed Mrozek’s office with the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles to inquire as to the status of any fed-brought Mountain Fire lawsuit. Mrozek’s emailed response was: “I can tell you that I am in not in a position to comment on any investigation or litigation that has not been filed. If that changes, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

In other words, the U.S. Attorney’s office is not talking as to why it hasn’t yet filed a lawsuit — and it won’t comment if it never does.

The TC also put in a call directly to attorney Steve Wolfe, chief attorney in the U.S Attorney’s Los Angeles office, for “trials, integrity & professionalism.” He returned my call Thursday morning, and told me he would look into my inquiry.

I inquired as to whether the federal government was not filing it’s lawsuit against Al-Shawaf because of considerations involving U.S.-Saudi relations. Wolfe stated that he would call me back at my cell phone number on Friday. He didn’t. Wolfe still hasn’t returned the call, and it’s now after closing hours Monday.

Only 30 days remain until July 15, 2016, the last date on which the federal government can filed its lawsuit to recover an estimated $18-plus million in taxpayers’ dollars.

For more than a year now, the TC has been seeking to know this information from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles. As yet, there appears to be no interest on the feds’ part in recovering these millions of dollars. If the statute of limitations date of July 15 comes and goes with no lawsuit on file, the TC will seek to know the reason why that decision was made and who made it.

If the U.S. Attorney’s Office does not file suit on or before July 15, $18-plus millions of taxpayers’ dollars will be unrecoverable. Perhaps that is a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of whatever U.S.-Saudi relations may be involved in this decision, if that is, in fact, the case. If it is, then we still want to know about it because it would be a shame for the Forest Service to have to quietly absorbed that monetary hit — and the public not know why.

Jack Clark, General  Counsel

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