Foresters decry double standard 

Some of Montana’s U.S. Forest Service employees are irate over the way they’ve been treated since they were caught sharing dirty jokes in their office e-mail. Their complaint: While they’re being suspended and reprimanded and six of them may even be fired, their ex-boss in Missoula, Brad Powell, committed similar infractions yet wound up with a prestigious new government position in sunny Arizona.

“It really raises some questions about equality of treatment,” one Forest Service worker told the Independent. “This guy gets this plum assignment, but other guys are getting fired over some goofy e-mails. Everybody says it’s a witch-hunt. It’s a big scandal here internally in our office.”

Powell was removed as one of the nation’s nine regional foresters last year after investigators found that he used government-issued computers to access pornography. He was transferred to Arizona to become staff coordinator for the new Wildland Fire Leadership Council. It was a demotion from the agency’s top executive ranks, but still considered a desirable assignment. Much ballyhooed by the Bush administration when it was created in 2002, the council is charged with coordinating wildfire management policies with state and local governments.

Then this year, 30 employees of the Forest Service in Montana were caught sharing sexually explicit jokes, cartoons and pictures through e-mail on government computers. The Forest Service won’t tell how they’ve been punished, citing privacy laws, but workers say six have been told they will be fired and the rest received a range of punishments, from suspensions to letters of reprimand. Some have been stripped of their supervisory responsibilities. Many of the workers are firefighters with 20 years on the job.

“We’re not saying we didn’t do anything wrong,” the worker told the Independent. “But what Brad Powell did, if it’s not worse, it’s comparable. Yet he gets to manage this large program. Meanwhile, here are these guys who are ground-pounders out there working for years fighting fires, and the Forest Service says, ‘You were bad. See ya.’ We’re saying that’s not fair.”

The Forest Service declined to compare Powell’s circumstance with the others, but agency spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch said: “We believe that we have taken appropriate actions” in all the cases.

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