U.S. attorney lobbies against limits on wildfire liability


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Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento, has launched an unusual and intense lobbying effort to stop Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to limit legal liability for wildfires.

In a letter sent Friday to state Senate and Assembly leaders, Wagner said the proposal would undermine a high-stakes federal lawsuit against Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s largest timber company. The civil trial, which involves alleged negligence causing the 2007 Moonlight fire, is scheduled to start on July 2 and could leave the company on the hook for $600 million.


Wagner wrote that his ‘deep concerns’ are shared by the other three U.S. attorneys in California. He called the proposal an attempt to ‘tilt the legal playing field in the final days before the trial,’ and he urged lawmakers to ‘reject this unseemly effort to protect the alleged wrongdoer in a major federal case.’

Brown’s plan would limit the amount of money government agencies can recoup for battling wildfires and restoring damaged public lands, preventing them from seeking what the proposal calls ‘excessive damages.’ The timber industry, which owns large swaths of territory in California and donated to Brown’s campaigns, says the federal government has sought several times more than the true cost of repairing the damage.

Wagner said in an interview that the federal government is seeking as much money as possible because recovering from wildfires is a long and expensive process.

‘This is not about sending a check to the Treasury,’ he said. ‘The money that is recovered in these cases goes right back into the national forests.’

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said it’s rare for federal prosecutors to delve into the legislative process in Sacramento.

‘Usually U.S. attorneys only interact with state politics when they’re indicting somebody,’ Pitney said.


Wagner said he’s not interested in shaping public policy, but is concerned that Sierra Pacific was working outside the courtroom to affect the outcome of the federal government’s case.

‘It appears to us that they’re trying to get the Legislature to suddenly change the rules,’ he said.

Sierra Pacific did not immediately return a request for comment. Nor did representatives for Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), but an aide to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said he plans to meet with Wagner to discuss the issue.

‘The pro tem does not wish to affect any ongoing investigation or prosecution by the U.S. attorney,’ said Steinberg’s spokeswoman, Alicia Trost.


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-- Chris Megerian in Sacramento