Forest Service dunked by its own 'witch hunt'

 

HELENA, Mont. - A federal judge has sided with an ex-forest supervisor who was forced out of his job in 1993.

Judge Joseph H. Hartman ruled July 15 that former Helena National Forest Supervisor Ernie Nunn should be offered reinstatement as a forest supervisor in Region One as well as back pay with interest amounting to more than $67,000.

Nunn, under the guidance of former Regional Forester John Mumma, gained a reputation as a solid resource manager, but after allegations over minor financial matters, he was forced into a hard choice: accept a transfer to a non-supervisory job in Washington, D.C., or resign. Nunn resigned.

The allegations held that Nunn had improperly purchased a $1,500 fox-trotting horse for rangers in the backcountry, and improperly joined the region's other supervisors at the time, using agency funds to buy a $180 briefcase that was a gift for Mumma.

Judge Hartman found that Nunn had not profited from the dealings. He found that some of Nunn's actions technically violated regulations, but ruled that the "agency's decision to reassign him (was) not a reasonable penalty." The judge said a simple reprimand should have been enough.

The ruling closes out some five years of U.S. Forest Service investigations of at least four long-term employees including Nunn, Mumma, horse-buyer Paul Senteney and former Custer National Forest Supervisor Curt Bates.

Bates believes that he, along with Nunn and Senteney, were used by the agency to bring down Mumma, who had led an effort within the agency to scale back timber harvests regionwide. "It was a vindictive witch hunt," says Bates. "Industry came down hard on John and the politicians came down hard on the Forest Service, and they came after John. Some of us were caught in the middle and it all related (supposedly) to horses, which had as little to do with it as anything."

Bates was given the choice between transfer to Washington or retirement and took retirement. Nunn decided to fight.

During Nunn's trial in Great Falls, Mont., in May, Hartman heard testimony from a half-dozen current and former high-ranking Forest Service officials, including Chief Jack Ward Thomas and Mumma.

At one point during the hearing, Mumma broke down in tears after being questioned about the gift of the briefcase. He pulled out the briefcase and threw it down on the agency attorney's table, saying "it wasn't worth anyone's career."

Mumma testified that he and Nunn were victims of a purge initiated by the timber industry and backed by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. Dick Wadhams, press secretary for Sen. Burns, later denied Mumma's charges.

"That's just absolutely false, without any foundation whatsoever," Wadhams said. "He (Burns) was concerned about the level of timber harvest because the Forest Service was not meeting its own internal goals and it came up in public conversation, but this notion that he applied pressure (to remove Mumma and Nunn) is absolutely false."

Others disagree. "There's a common thread and everybody knew it," says attorney Sarah Levitt, who, along with Jeff Ruch, represented Nunn. "The timber industry did not like Ernie and did not like John because of their approach to resource management - to manage the resource, not exploit the resource."

Ruch and Levitt work for the Government Accountability Project, a private, nonprofit outfit in Washington, D.C., that provides legal counsel to whistleblowers.

Mumma and Nunn both failed to meet timber quotas, saying they felt the forests could not meet industry demands.

In Bates' case, the disagreement was over oil, not timber. Bates was in charge of the nation's leading oil-producing forest and was under intense pressure to lease even more lands.

Hartman's decision is the second blow dealt to the Forest Service in as many years relating to alleged misdealings with horses. In March 1992, a Colorado judge ruled that the agency's internal investigation of Senteney bordered on a "vendetta." He made that statement after Senteney pled guilty to one of the agency's charges and appeared before him for sentencing. The judge ordered him to pay $2,400 in restitution, but made it clear he was outraged by the agency's prosecution of Senteney (HCN, 6/14/93).

Senteney, who had over 30 years with the service, was a wildlife biologist and official agency horse buyer.

As part of his job, Senteney purchased hundreds, if not thousands, of Missouri fox-trotting horses. Many within the agency prefer the breed because fox-trotters tend to be gentle and capable of traveling more rapidly in rough country than other breeds. Because of Senteney's widely known abilities as a horseman, supervisors from Arizona to Montana (including Bates and Nunn) would call to place orders. Senteney would then travel to Missouri to purchase the horses.

But after Senteney's retirement in 1989, the agency brought allegations of misconduct against him and slapped him with felony conflict of interest charges. However, the judge stated that Senteney's actions were "undertaken for the benefit of the Forest Service and not to profit individually himself or a third party."

According to Senteney, during the investigation, many of his friends and long-time horse contacts in Missouri were called in the middle of the night and grilled over the phone. Investigators even stormed into one Missouri home at noon on Easter Sunday. When questioning Nunn and Bates, investigators pulled their weapons and laid them on the table while taking notes.

"It was part of their intimidation tactics," says Nunn. "I guess they figured they'd scare us if they had a firearm displayed."

Similar allegations were later aimed against Nunn and Bates for horses obtained through Senteney. In Nunn's case, the fox-trotter in question had been bought for personal use by Senteney's wife, who then sold it to the agency through Nunn.

"I'm very pleased with the decision for Ernie," says Bates. "It brings some justice out of this whole cloak-and-dagger thing."

Despite his victory, Nunn said he doesn't want to work for the Forest Service anymore. Only days after winning his case, he accepted a job as executive vice president of the Helena Chamber of Commerce.

"I don't feel sour about the agency," said Nunn. "But there are a handful of people who still remain in the outfit who are no longer worthy to be leaders. The leadership in Missoula (the regional office) is waning and needs to be replaced immediately."

Dave Jolly is currently regional forester of Region One. He was unavailable for comment.

"This whole thing is on the verge of waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayers' dollars over a $1,500 fox-trotter and a $180 briefcase," says Nunn.

Despite the long and expensive investigation - by one estimate, the government spent as much as $1 million to investigate the four men - the agency never gathered enough evidence to bring charges against Mumma, who called the latest court decision "a good day for Ernie Nunn and a bad day for the Forest Service.

"There have been too many bad days for the Forest Service," Mumma said.

Tom Reed writes in Lander, Wyoming.