EPA Drops Conflict-Of-Interest Probe of Top Florida Officials
EPA Let Vinyard Run out the Clock on Complaint without Determining Violation
Tallahassee — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will not pursue conflict-of-interest charges against Florida’s top two state regulators, according to correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, Florida Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Herschel Vinyard and his top deputy may continue to oversee federal Clean Water Act permits despite their admitted industry ties. The Clean Water Act disqualifies any state decision-maker 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.”
More than two years ago, PEER and the Florida Clean Water Network formally petitioned EPA to declare Vinyard ineligible to rule on clean water matters due to his prior employment by BAE Systems Southeast Shipyard, whose subsidiaries and related companies have water pollution permits. In a letter dated April 26, 2013, EPA Southeastern Regional Administrator Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming wrote that the –
“information is insufficient to determine whether Secretary Vinyard had, at the time of his appointment, a disqualifying conflict of interest….In addition, EPA is denying the Petition at this time due to mootness. The relevant conflict of interest requirements [citations omitted] involve a two-year look-back period… Secretary Vinyard resigned from his former employment on January 14, 2011…Thus, the two-year look-back period ended as of January 14, 2013.”
“It takes some nerve for EPA to hide behind its own lengthy non-enforcement for dismissing a clear violation as stale,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney, noting that the conflict was documented in Vinyard’s own official résumé which he later tried to recant. “It is apparent that EPA pursued this violation with the vigor of a wet noodle.”
In a separate letter also dated April 26th, Ms. Keyes Fleming dismisses a similar complaint filed by the two groups back in August 2012 against Vinyard’s top aide, Jeff Littlejohn, Deputy Secretary for Regulatory Programs, who specialized in permitting for an engineering firm where he was vice-president for ten years prior to his DEP tenure. In his case, EPA concluded that the “evidence is insufficient” to indicate whether Littlejohn earned more than 10% of his income from prohibited sources based upon an uncorroborated letter from DEP.
In neither case is there any indication that EPA conducted its own investigation beyond asking Vinyard and Littlejohn to respond to the petition particulars. It appears that EPA then decided the cases without bothering to speak to former employers or to anyone other than DEP counsel for Vinyard and Littlejohn.
“The fact that EPA conducted no investigation and then waited out the clock before waving a white flag shows exactly how far the agency has fallen in what should be its mission to protect the environment,” added Phillips. “It is clear that Floridians now have even fewer public officials willing to enforce laws meant to protect us all.”
Last month, an administrative law judge excoriated Littlejohn for overruling the state’s top wetland expert and issuing permits without verified wetlands credits. The groups cite other crippling pollution reverses under Vinyard and Littlejohn that these federal conflict-of-interest prohibitions were designed to prevent.