Congressman Adam Schiff asks questions during a congressional hearing…
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who has hammered the U.S. Forest Service over its response to the 2009 Station fire and its slowness in completing investigations of the blaze, this week demanded that agency watchdogs push harder to determine if privacy laws were broken in the early days of the fire.
Schiff sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis Fong seeking full answers about allegations that the Forest Service improperly recorded calls at the Angeles National Forest emergency center on the first day of the fire, and then withheld the recordings or transcripts from subsequent investigations. The Forest Service is an arm of the Department of Agriculture.
The request came the same week that the Forest Service issued a report finding flaws in the response to requests for firefighting aircraft in the early stages of the fire, though the report also stated it was unclear whether a faster air response would have curbed the blaze. The fire burned for nearly two months, destroying 250 square miles of forest, dozens of homes and killing two firefighters.
The public report did not probe the phone calls. But Schiff said Thursday a separate report from the Agriculture Department’s Office of the Inspector General indicated calls were taped without the explicit knowledge of both parties, violating state or federal privacy laws. The report stopped before making that determination.
“The OIG report seems to strongly suggest that they were in violation of the law, but they fail to reach a conclusion,” Schiff said. “Not because they couldn’t, but for inexplicable reasons they didn’t reach a conclusion. I think they should.”
Fong could not be reached for comment, and Angeles National Forest officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Schiff said the report determined that the recorded calls did not pertain to the broader investigation of whether the Forest Service bungled requests for an early air response to the Station fire.
The phone calls came under scrutiny after government officials learned that they had been withheld from a Forest Service review team and the Los Angeles Times, which had made a Freedom of Information Act request for them. The Office of the Inspector General then launched an investigation into whether the recordings were pertinent to the main investigation.
“The OIG report should reach a conclusion whether it believes the law was violated,” Schiff said. “It also ought to set out recommendations to ensure the law isn’t violated in the future, what steps the Forest Service needs to take, and I think it would also be appropriate to set out what the range of remedies may be.