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Know the West

As witness for prosecution, chief aids defense

  Although Jack Ward Thomas testified against him in his Great Falls, Mont., trial, former forest supervisor Ernie Nunn believes the Forest Service chief was also partially responsible for his acquittal. "I think he signaled the judge that those were not significant charges."

The signal came twice. First, as the top appeals officer within the Forest Service, Thomas dropped several of the charges initially brought against Nunn. "Jack Ward Thomas said some of the charges brought against me hadn't warranted the harsh actions that had been taken. But he did uphold the $1,500 fox-trotter charge," Nunn said. Nunn went to trial on that charge.

The second signal came during the trial in Great Falls. "Thomas did testify against me, but he made some statements that helped me out."

Why didn't Thomas simply drop all the charges against Nunn? In a telephone interview, Nunn said that Thomas has not yet bent the Forest Service bureaucracy to his will. "The new leadership can't make it happen. They can't push the changes through the system. I think Jack Ward Thomas can be a very good chief if some of his people would let him."

Nunn guessed that his acquittal may lead to some changes. "Now the chief has got to make some decisions." Nunn said he understands that a large number of cases - the result of internal investigations - are awaiting action by the chief.

And more are coming through the pipeline. Nunn said that since his acquittal, he has received numerous telephone calls from agency employees. People under pressure in the agency, he said, are searching for ways to fight disciplinary action being taken against them.

Typically, Nunn said, agency employees are threatened with "rinky-dink" violations because they've reduced timber cuts or tried to improve grazing practices.

Nunn said those who anger the commodity industries are informally offered transfers - -There's never anything in writing' - or threatened with loss of their jobs. "Some of these folks call me to find out how to figure out the appeals process and how to resist transfers. They're scared; they're afraid. I can share that with them because I went through it."

In every case, Nunn said, the Forest Service can find something to use. "You can dig up a violation on any ranger or supervisor. If you want to get rid of an employee, I can show you how to do it."

* Ed Marston