Tallahassee — Senior Florida environmental officials committed criminal violations of the state’s open records law by hiding documents about pollution problems at a landfill run by political associates of Governor Jeb Bush, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At the same time they were withholding documents, top managers at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued false statements to the press indicating that the asbestos operation was in compliance with anti-pollution requirements.
Florida’s public records law, popularly known as the Sunshine Act, requires state agencies to produce public records when asked to by the public. A state official who “willfully and knowingly violates” this mandate to produce requested documents is guilty of a first degree misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for up to a year and a fine.
In April 2004, PEER requested the state enforcement files covering Big Wheel Recycling, Aztec Environmental, Inc., and their affiliates in Bay County. Several months after the requested documents were supposedly produced; the U.S. Air Force barred the companies from receiving any federal contracts for an indefinite period of time, pointing to a joint FBI, Defense Criminal Investigative Service and Customs investigation documenting pollution, occupational safety and immigration offenses.
A records request by PEER to the Air Force under the federal Freedom of Information Act yielded papers showing that the firms were using crews of illegal aliens, holding “fictitious social security” numbers, to perform unsafe asbestos removals and dump the debris illegally into an open air disposal facility, thereby creating a public health hazard. Some of the documents produced by the Air Force indicated DEP involvement during a time period covered by PEER’s April 2004 public records request. Yet, those records had not been supplied by the DEP.
After PEER made these new documents publicly available, it submitted another request to DEP for documents. In response, DEP surrendered 300 pages of inspection reports and other enforcement records, many of which should have been released earlier.
“Criminal prosecution of the responsible officials is justified not only because relevant documents were covered up but because the cover-up endangered the health of both residents and workers,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney who filed the criminal complaint with the Office of State Attorney in Tallahassee. “Unless these egregious cases are prosecuted, we can just turn out the lights on Florida’s Sunshine Act.”
Despite the Air Force action and the incriminating inspection reports showing groundwater contamination, illegal asbestos disposal and improper permitting, DEP has brought no enforcement action against the Big Wheel operation. William Gerald Harrison, Jr., a prominent Panama City attorney who is a registered lobbyist for the St. Joe Company and a member of both Governor Jeb Bush’s and President George W. Bush’s transition teams, served on the Board of Directors for Big Wheel and fought the federal debarment.
In response to PEER document requests, DEP Northwest District Director Mary Jean Yon repeatedly insisted the Big Wheel syndicate was in environmental compliance even though her own inspectors kept reporting violations. Yon has since been promoted to DEP headquarters and placed in charge of all state waste disposal regulation.
PEER has also called for a grand jury investigation into a myriad of problems within the Northwest District Office of DEP, including the role of campaign contributions in hiring practices and the lack of enforcement against Big Wheel. That complaint was transferred to the State Attorney in Panama City in May 2005. His office has yet to dismiss or pursue the matter.