Three years after its last-minute filing of the United State’s lawsuit against Mountain Center property owner, Dr. Tarek M.A. Al-Shawaf, and his employees seeking some $24 million in costs of fire suppression and damage to federal forest lands, the Department of Justice (DOJ), United States Attorney’s Office has filed to dismiss the case. 

The Idyllwild Town Crier inquired of Thom Mrozek, the public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, regarding the terms of the settlement. He responded by email: “There is no settlement in the federal case, although there was a state court settlement that brought $5 million to victims of the fire. The government has asked the court to dismiss the case after learning about new evidence which we believe raised questions whether the defendant should be held responsible for amounts exceeding the state court $5 million settlement. Our motion is based on our desire to act in the interest of justice.”

When the Town Crier asked for some explanation as to the “new evidence” Mrozek responded: “We don’t plan on offering further comment.”

The Town Crier has again pressed the U.S. Attorney’s Office for an explanation, but has yet to receive anything further.

Al-Shawaf is a wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman and former director of general projects in the Saudi government.

Taken altogether, the federal Justice Department’s handling of this entire matter raises some questions. 

Why did the U.S. Attorney’s office wait one day before the statute of limitations was to run out — only after multiple inquiries by the Idyllwild Town Crier — before they filed this lawsuit, particularly when the state court action brought by Cal Fire was filed so much earlier?

What is the “new evidence” the U.S. Attorney’s office is citing? And why did it not prevent the settlement of the state court action that settled for $5 million? What “new evidence” was discovered between then and now? Why would the DOJ not want us to know what that “new evidence” is?

Does the fact that Al-Shawaf is a wealthy Saudi businessman, a former official in the Saudi government, enter into this decision to drop this lawsuit against him? And, if so, who made that decision?

Why should U.S. taxpayers be out some $24 million for fire suppression costs and damages to federal lands when there clearly was liability in the state court action on the same set of facts?

Perhaps the “new evidence” would explain this. So, why isn’t the DOJ releasing it?

The 2013 Mountain Fire caused the evacuation of thousands of hill residents for six days, destroyed homes, and damaged thousands of acres of federal lands. The DOJ’s own estimate of damages cost U.S. taxpayers approximately $24 million. Why should that simply be forgiven?

This story will be updated with further information as it evolves.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated from an earlier version.

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