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Liar, Liar, Colorado is on Fire

By Mark T. Moore

Does anyone remember O.J. Simpson saying that he would not rest until he found the person who murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman? Of course you do, we all do, but now that O.J. is mostly out of the limelight playing golf, nobody much cares anymore, except for the victims’ families. While O.J. is not at it again, U.S. Forest Service Ranger Terry Barton apparently thought she could benefit from an O.J. style subterfuge. Thankfully, she did not succeed. If she had, someone else may have paid for her crimes, in addition to the 25 families who have already lost their homes to the fire she started.

On June 8, Barton was praised for reporting the start of what is now the largest wildfire in Colorado history, while on patrol, enforcing a ban on open fires. She provided a license plate number and a description of a gold minivan that she saw leaving the scene when she "arrived" to investigate. Later, the Associated Press reported, Barton stated she would not rest until someone was arrested for starting the fire. Unlike O.J., she can at least now sleep comfortably (behind bars).

On June 16, Barton confessed to starting the blaze after overwhelming evidence was presented which showed that her original report about the fire was impossible. Her new statement, and confession, is that she set a letter from her estranged husband on fire in an established fire circle, waited until she thought that it was out, drove away, and then returned after she noticed smoke rising from the area which she had just departed. She was unable to put out the fire and at that point she called it in to her superiors. Investigators now believe that she is lying about this account as well. They say that the fire appears to have been deliberately set outside of the established fire ring and made to look like an accident.

While Barton sleeps, what about the rest of us who are often forced to rely on government employees for our safety? What is particularly scary, but not necessarily surprising, about this episode, is not that Barton didn’t ‘fess up right away and take responsibility for her mistake, if it was indeed a mistake, but that she actively tried to pass the blame on to an innocent minivan driver. The driver was located, questioned and later deemed to be only a concerned citizen investigating the source of smoke in the area.

Had other government employees been as careless or abusive of their positions as Barton was, the situation could have been much worse. Barton’s attempt to divert attention from herself could have resulted in the minivan driver going to jail, like the A-Team of TV’s yesteryear, for a crime he did not commit. Barton’s actions highlight the fact that government employees are just people. And like the criminals they are supposed to police, government employees are subject to temptations to which they, too, may succumb.

According to the Rocky Mountain News, Barton joins a number of other government employees who have been charged with starting wildfires. The motives behind these fires range from wanting to get paid overtime or hazardous pay for fighting the very fire they started, to just having an arsonist’s desire to see things burn. Only time will tell if Barton’s true motives come to light.

So far Barton has been charged with four felonies which, if convicted of all four, would bring her up to 65 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines. While Barton may or may not have purposely started the fire, she clearly intended to pin the blame on someone else in her initial report to investigators. To date, that has not been addressed in the criminal complaint against Barton, which is either a great oversight or a flaw in the system.

The criminal complaint does not cite Barton for breaking her oath as a federal employee to "well and faithfully discharge the duties" with which she was entrusted. When a government employee abuses the public trust in such an egregious fashion, breaking that oath should be a punishable offense, similar to the military’s dereliction of duty charge. Government employees must be held accountable for breaking their oath or the oath is meaningless and the public trust is further eroded.

Right now, the government is charging Barton as if, at the time she committed the crimes, she was acting as a private citizen, which is not the case. Barton was in uniform, on patrol, and was entrusted with the power to stop people from doing the very thing that she did. Her job was to prevent forest fires. Her actions could very well have sent an innocent person to jail.

All government employees, when acting in their official capacity, must be held to the highest of standards, and in the case of Terry Barton, punished accordingly when they abuse their positions. It would be unconscionable to malign all government employees for this ranger’s actions. Nonetheless, her behavior begs the question: How many other Terry Bartons are out there?

Mark T. Moore holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics & Environmental Studies from the University of California Santa Barbara and is currently pursuing a Juris Doctor & Master of Public Policy degree at Pepperdine University.

[Posted June 20, 2002]

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