On Corruption, Agency Capture and Forest Service Experience

In comments on a recent post I noted that “corruption and bias are always in play” when dealing with high-level politics. Over at the Kaufmann Governance Post, Daniel Kaufmann has taken up a crusade to daylight and castigate what he calls “corruption,” moving it beyond more traditionally narrow framing as bribes, kickbacks, direct money payoffs, etc. In a post titled Capture and the Financial Crisis: An Elephant forcing a rethink of Corruption, Kaufmann says,

it makes sense to have a neutral and broader definition of corruption, akin to: “the privatization of public policy”. In addition of being a legally neutral definition, it moves beyond coarse manifestations of bureaucratic bribery, and it would encompass undue influence or capture of regulations and policies by narrow interests.

Kaufmann is particularly critical of undue influence of lobbyists and other “influence peddlers,” and notes:

the focus on corruption needs to move away from exclusive focus on the ‘abuse of public office’ and squarely acknowledge that corruption often involves collusion between the public and private (and at times outright capture by the private potentates).

What do you think? Does Kaufmann’s framing make sense? If so, Who ought we to have as Under Secretaries, as Agency Heads, etc? Or does might it be that some be dis-allowed from serving. If so, who? Or does it make any difference? Maybe an answer is that “we the people” ought to watch particularly closely those who have been “influence peddlers,” rather than banning them outright.

I have been particularly outraged that lobbyists have so much power in our country. And I believe far too much discourse and policy-making in the US revolves around industry and commerce, and too little around matters of “public interest.” Hence I was happy to see President Obama disallow “lobbyists” from filling the seats known as “political appointees.” Still, I wonder: Did it help?

I find it difficult to make a case that it is worse to have an industry lobbyist, i.e. Mark Rey as an Under Secretary who oversees the US Forest Service than to have a key corporate lawyer like John Crowell, from the same industry that by many accounts had already captured the Forest Service. In either case I find such appointments at least questionable. That is not to say that an individual from such backgrounds might not rise above said background, just that it seems unlikely that they would.

How might we do better in our politics? Unfortunately, we seem to be in one of those moments that Richard Hofstadter called “paranoid” in his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Wikipedia link). In such moments neither side in the US two-party system will listen to the other side, and power-over rules the day—power-with is seldom seen or used.

[Note: The idea that the Forest Products Industry captured the Forest Service at a point in time, is somewhat appealing given how dominate Timber used to be as one of the “multiple uses.” But the idea was never totally true, and less true today than yesterday. Still there is/was enough “capture” to be wary of lobbyists from, and other advocates for a dominant industry to be key policy-makers for that agency. Even if “big timber” is in its twilight as per the Forest Service, “big recreation” is still very much and increasingly at center stage.]

6 thoughts on “On Corruption, Agency Capture and Forest Service Experience”

  1. One very powerful lobby that is often overlooked is the environmental or Green. What started out as a grass roots in the 60’s and 70’s has evolved into multi-national groups with well funded lobbyists. Good bad or indifferent they are major players in forming FS policy.

    • The Enviros do now have a substantial lobby presence in DC. But they didn’t until the “crony capitalists” lobby groups gained power and presence in the halls of US power. My guess is that if the crony capitalist lobby problem could be solved, the environmentalist lobby money would largely dry up, leaving a much smaller environmental lobby to deal with a residual “public lands use” lobby. But that’s only a guess.

      Speaking of lobbying, I remember one day early in the Clinton Administration (1990?) when Jeff DeBonis (AFSEEE), Jeff Ruch (GAP) and I were sandwiched in between the big timber lobbyist meeting and the big environmentalist lobbyist meetings with Katy McGinty at CEQ. It proved to be an interesting moment, at least for me, being there at noon (on a”annual leave” from my government job) and watching a very young McGinty trying to deal with the power brokers, while wondering what to think of us. When I asked McGinty where I might find those Al Gore had tasked with “reinventing government” McGinty responded, “I thought that’s what you are doing.” We tried, and keep trying, but never seem to gain much traction.

  2. The corruption at all level s of the USFS is deplorable.

    Fire management has and is getting away with whatever they want knowing the DOJ and every high level attorney they employ will protect every pre-meditated illegal activity they want.

    As tax payers we should be disgusted with their record and ongoing record of sexual harrassment and horrible so called prescribed burn program.

    As far as transparency, what really happened to the GMHS crew in 2013? Or the botched RX burns turned wildfire? NO ACCOUTABILITY.

    Duty, Respect and Integrity do not belong anywhere near the USFS, never has, never will.


  3. The level of corruption the USFS has and is currently getting away with is disgusting.

    They created a CYA anti Harassment call in program in which the harassers are not held accountable. The EEO complaint process is a ruse as ALL management, Fire or otherwise are protected at all costs.

    The RX program is not only clueless but also protected by the DOJ which is also in place to cover up illegal actions and outright corruption. Do tell Eldorado N.F. , how did you guys get away with lighting the Caples RX during a Fire Weather Watch? How did you continue during a substantial Red Flag Warning? How did you produce the numbers to meet the Go-No-Go checklist? People know criminal acts were at play to produce the Caples wildfire. Even the National weather service warned you not to do it but I guess the Eldorado national Forest doesn’t use prescription documentation, or they don’t care that it is the law to follow it exactly how it is written.

    Another good question, what did really happen to the GMIHC? Why gag BRIHC and hundreds of FF’s that were there? Why allow a team of buffoon investigators produce a report that lied to the world? Why seal the investigation and hide audio that proves what we all know? Why allow the same Fire managers to still have fireline qualifications, or even their jobs or freedom that managed the YHF?


    Too many good people have paid a price attempting to do the right thing. The USFS tells its employees to speak up, have integrity. The truth though is this, speak up and get ready to be Harrassed, Discriminated against until you fall in line and tow the lie. If that doesn’t happen you will be forced out and wished you never worked there.

    Acceptable loss is now a living, breathing thing in the FAM program. Friendly Fire is being covered up and has been then and now. Accountability is a dirty word to the USFS and they only hire those that will tow the line. Duty, Respect and Integrity aren’t words that belong in that agency.

    Mothers and Fathers, don’t allow your children to work for the USFS, it could literally mean their life.

  4. Umm.. “the RX program is not only clueless but also protected by the DOJ which is also in place to cover up illegal actions and outright corruption”.. my experience doesn’t reflect your assertions.

  5. My assertions? 2 1/2 decades of watching my agency completely break the law and burn under Red Flag conditions is not only disgusting but a fact.

    Were you in the agency during the “Cerro Grande Fire”? It started as an RX on the second day of a Red Flag Warning, It exploded into a wildfire that decimated most of Los Alamos, NM. I’m sure you are aware of what is there in Los Alamos?

    Because of incompetence and ineptitude many homes and businesses were lost. Then because of that Fire the “Agency” in all of its wisdom created the Go-No-Go checklist. BTW not a single person lost their job or served prison time. Any other Fire agency would’ve been bankrupt, but the DOJ and DOE gave them a pass. Myself and my IHC witnessed the carnage firsthand.

    Since the inception of the Go-No-Go it has been fudged and outright ignored for many years. Dozens of RX projects have escaped due to incompetence and people knowing they would be “Protected”.

    Just under a year ago the Caples RX was proof of that “Protection”. Lit under a Fire Weather Watch it too exploded under a forecasted Red Flag Warning. It prematurely gutted one of the biggest watersheds in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. That water feeds millions of people. Millions of dollars to suppress and even more to rehabilitate preemptively to stop tons of silt from pouring into the American river.

    All taxpayer money as thousands of people were without power because PG&E turned off the power because of the predicted and surfaced Red Flag Warning. Again, the “Agency” protected at all costs.

    Would you like more factual examples? An assertion implies opinion, feel free to Google the incidents mentioned.

    Maybe someday FAM will enforce the adherence to RX Prescribed Fire documentation, or hold people accountable, but I doubt it. The “Agency” has been “Wrecking the land and fooling the people for well over 100 years”.

    Best of luck to you, be safe and speak up so these huge disasters cease from happening.


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