Ex-Agent: Forest Service Falsified Reports

He'll Testify Freedom Of lnformation Act Responses Doctored

By Scott Sonner, Associated Press, Spokesman-Review,October 4, 1993

WASHINGTON - The former special agent in charge of the Forest Service's whistleblower unit says the agency regularly falsified responses to public requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

John McCormick, who told a House subcommittee of alleged illegal activity at the Forest Service last year, said the agency denied existence of some records and tried to get him to alter others to cover up alleged wrongdoing from 1989-1991.

Some of the documents related to government logging operations in violation of environmental laws.

Others concerned evidence of reprisals against workers resisting orders to break the laws, he said.

McCormick told The Associated Press he is prepared to testify about the incidents in a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former Forest Service official against the agency in Portland.

In one case, McCormick said he was instructed to rewrite a report and return it to the person who requested it as if it was the requested report, he said.

"Basically, they would try to get me to withhold information. They would claim they don't have the records in the Washington office," McCormick said in an interview.

"Hell, I put those records in the files. I can lead the Justice Department and the General Accounting Office right down to the basement there and open up their eyes," he said.

McCormick told the House Civil Service subcommittee in January 1992 he was forced into retirement that month because he pursued investigations of alleged timber theft on national forests in defiance of orders from his superiors.

The panel has scheduled another hearing on Tuesday to investigate claims that Forest Service managers are interfering in the investigation and prosecution of crimes by the agency's law enforcement arm, the subcommittee said last week.

Witnesses scheduled to testify include Charles Turner, former U.S. attorney in Portland; Mike Nitsch, a special agent on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state; and Dennis Schrader, an agent with the agency's Timber Theft Task Force in Eugene, Ore.

Investigators for the House Appropriations Committee said in a report in May that timber thefts on national forests may exceed $100 million. They said Forest Service investigations into the cases have been hampered by the timber industry's political influence and interference from the agency's own managers.

Forest Service spokesman Denver James referred calls regarding McCormick's claims to the Agriculture Department.

"We have no evidence of falsifying FOIA requests. Anybody caught doing anything like that will be dealt with severely," said Tom Amontree, a spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

Jim Lyons, assistant agriculture secretary for natural resources, personally is reviewing the allegations regarding timber theft and interference in investigations, Amontree said.

"The Clinton administration will not tolerate law enforcement interference. If polices need to be changed, they will," he said.

McCormick, who now runs a private consulting service in Townsend. Ga., once was the head of the vice squad for the county sheriff's office in Las Vegas. He later worked as a law officer and criminal investigator for the Forest Service in Oregon and Alaska.

McCormick said he was ordered transferred to Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., in November 1989 as punishment for his refusal to toe the agency line.

He told the subcommittee last year the agency failed to keep the names of whistleblowers confidential. He said Forest Service managers accused of wrongdoing often were assigned to look into the whistleblowers' complaints.

During his more than 2 years at the whistleblower unit, McCormick said he was involved with approximately 50 requests under the Freedom of Information Act. He said "more often than not" the agency's responses were untruthful.

McCormick said he could not discuss details of the discrimination suit in Oregon because of a federal judge's gag order.

Michael Ballard, a former employee of the Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon, filed the $3.5 million suit in May accusing the Forest Service and seven agency officials of racketeering and racial discrimination. He claims his superiors looked the other way when trucks loaded with timber were illegally removed from national forests.

Dean Webb, one of the Portland attorneys representing Ballad, said U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh has scheduled a Nov. 3 hearing to consider the government's request to dismiss the lawsuit. But he said neither he nor Ballard could discuss the case before then.

McCormick said if he is called as a witness in the case his testimony would speak generally to the agency's handling of FOIA requests. A source familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ballard has been unsuccessful with FOlA requests aimed at obtaining documents from the agency.

"I'm going to testify that they tried to force me to falsify government records," McCormick said in the interview.

"It involved requests for FOIAs, reports that should have been released in their entirety. They tried to get me to break them up, disguise the case report, pick out certain exhibits and rewrite the summary of it. They wanted me to send it to a law firm and tell them that was the report," he said.

McCormick said that one instance in 1991 involved a Forest Service claim against a public utility for damages in a forest fire along the California-Nevada border.

He said lawyers for the Agriculture Department, overseeing the Forest Service, "told me clearly what they wanted me to do. I would not do it, so they withheld what they wanted to."

Most of McCormick's run-ins were with officials at Forest Service headquarters, he said.

"I was going by the book. They basically were withholding things that they would have been better off releasing," he said.

McCormick said he filed FOIA requests of his own beginning in July 1989 to try to gather evidence that he was the victim of agency reprisals intended to push him off timber theft probes.

"They denied the documents existed. But when I got to the office and was working as a FOIA person, I was going through the records in a computer and discovered the records did exist," he said.

McCormick said he lodged a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, but that the office said the complaint was moot because he had found the documents.

Paul Ellis, a spokesman for the special counsel, said, "We are not in a position to talk about individual cases because of Privacy Act restrictions."