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California Governor, U.S. Attorney Spar Over State Budget
Posted By Aaron Koepper On May 30, 2012 @ 4:57 pm In News | Comments Disabled
Eastern California U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner criticized a measure in Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) state budget to limit wildfire liabilities as a “fairly cynical attempt”  to benefit California’s timber industry.
The federal government is actively pursuing a wildfire negligence case against Sierra Pacific Industries for its alleged role in the so-called “moonlight fire” of 2007, which burned 65,000 acres in Plumas and Lassen counties. The trial starts July 2, two days after the beginning of the state’s fiscal year, when the new budget would go into effect. The federal government is looking for $200 million to rehabilitate the land and pay for the costs of fighting the fire, according to a report  in the LA Times. California, meanwhile, is struggling to fill a budget deficit projected  to be up to $16 billion.
The measure is designed to keep the companies from spending millions of dollars in court, which Brown hopes will keep the companies hiring and people off unemployment rolls, according to the Sacramento Bee . It would more narrowly define the criteria for wildfire costs and focus on making companies pay restoration damages.
“I hope that members of the legislature see this measure for what it is: not a solid policy proposal but an attempt by one party to a lawsuit to tilt the playing field in its favor after three years of litigation in federal court,” Wagner said in a statement last week.
Brown holds that the current law “leads to claims far exceeding restoration costs,” including a $102 million settlement with the Union Pacific Railroad over a 2000 wildfire, far higher than the previous record of $14 million.
The moonlight fire was started on Sierra Pacific Industries’ land, according to the government suit. The company donated $10,000 to Brown’s campaign to support the governor’s tax initiative to increase the sales tax and an income tax increase for upper earners, and previously gave $46,800 to Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, according to the Bee. He also received $10,000 from the Green Diamond Resource Co. and $5,000 from the California Forestry Association for the ballot tax.
Wagner was appointed as U.S. Attorney in 2009. His tenure with the Eastern District goes back to 1992, where he started in the Narcotics and Violent Crimes Unit. Between 2000 and 2009, he was chief of the Special Prosecutions Unit, responsible for prosecuting public corruption, fraud, tax evasion and other federal crimes.
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