Tallahassee — Another top Florida environmental official has run afoul of federal conflict of interest rules, as detailed in a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Florida Clean Water Network. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also reviewing a similar petition from the two groups to disqualify Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Herschel Vinyard from handling water pollution matters as a result of his industry ties.
Today’s complaint targets Jeff Littlejohn, the DEP Deputy Secretary for Regulatory Programs and the number two official at the agency. The federal Clean Water Act forbids appointment of any state decision-maker on pollution discharge permits in federal water quality programs who “has during the previous two years received a significant portion of his income directly or indirectly from permit holders or applicants for a permit” (emphasis added). Yet, Littlejohn specialized in environmental and marine permitting for an engineering firm where he served as vice-president for ten years prior to his appointment at DEP.
The federal rules are designed to prevent industry from exerting undue influence over the permits that govern their discharge of water pollutants. In Littlejohn’s case, however, close industry ties also extend to his parents, who run a lobbying firm representing entities doing extensive business before the DEP, such as the Florida Land Council and Farm Bureau Federation. Indeed, Secretary Vinyard, former chairman of the Shipbuilders Council of America, appointed as his Deputy someone whose parents represent the Florida Ports Council, at a time when major port dredging issues will come before DEP.
“Pollution permits should be free from contamination by insider trading and influence peddling,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. “By contrast to federal no-conflict rules, Deputy Secretary Littlejohn looks like a merry-go-round of special interest connections.”
Littlejohn’s industry connections have already affected DEP permit policies. This spring, for example, he ordered one of the DEP’s top wetlands experts to disregard regulations and issue a permit to a Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank, a company well-known to him. Littlejohn’s position was premised upon a memo that an attorney for Highlands Ranch had written for him seeking to change the DEP’s wetland permit policy. When the expert refused to issue the permit she was suspended but later reinstated. Meanwhile state enforcement and permitting practices are slacking off dramatically, according to a PEER analysis.
“Over the past year and a half, DEP has been slashing, repealing and voiding Florida’s water quality safeguards faster than anyone could imagine” said Linda Young, Director of the Florida Clean Water Network. “At many of these public crucifixions of our environmental laws, Mr. Littlejohn’s father is seen sitting in the back of the room, with a smug smile on his face. It’s obvious that having his son in a position to do his bidding is very satisfying to him. I imagine that it’s very good for his lobbying business as well.”
The two groups filed a similar recusal petition with EPA seeking disqualification of Secretary Vinyard back in February 2011. Despite various EPA pronouncements over the ensuing months that it would act quickly, the federal agency has yet to take any action to enforce its conflict of interest prohibitions.