Trenton — Challenges to Governor Jon Corzine’s pledge to improve ethics in New Jersey government are emerging as a result of personnel moves by current and former high-ranking officials in the state’s anti-pollution agency, according to a letter sent to the Governor today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). A recent series of incidents involving the revolving door of former Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials going to work for industry and a building industry lobbyist appointed to a key regulatory slot have raised questions about the impartiality and the ethics of the agency making key public health decisions in which the affected industries have millions of dollars at stake.
State ethics laws require that “employees shall hold the respect and confidence of the people. Public officials must, therefore, avoid conduct which is in violation of their public trust or which creates a justifiable impression among the public that such trust is being violated.”
“Recent personnel and management decisions at DEP create exactly the ‘justifiable impression’ the law seeks to avoid while raising legitimate questions about undue industry influence” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, pointing to three recent incidents as causing concern among DEP staff:
- Susan Boyle, a former DEP Assistant Commissioner for Site Remediation, has been loaned to the National Brownfields Association, which is controlled by private development interests, including those actively pursuing DEP approvals for controversial New Jersey projects, such as Cherokee;
- Nancy Wittenberg, longtime lobbyist for the New Jersey Builders Association and a harsh critic of DEP regulations, has been appointed Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Regulation. In that position, Ms. Wittenberg will manage regulatory programs she criticized, including programs directly related to litigation against the Department by her former employer; and
- Former DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell has joined Wolff & Samson, a firm described as “the politically connected law firm with an expansive environmental and development practice.”
During the tenures of Governor McGreevey and acting Governor Codey, DEP was embarrassed by numerous cases of state officials trading insider information to corporate agents; improper secret meetings with affected companies to set policy; and suppression of agency experts who attempted to expose dangers of DEP accommodation of inadequate industry toxic cleanup plans, particularly those involving deadly chromium.
PEER is proposing that Gov. Corzine intervene at DEP and order –
- Open calendars, so that industry meetings with regulators can be monitored;
- Conflict of interest standards for DEP contractors;
- Enforcement and reform of post-employment restrictions; and
- Protection for DEP whistleblowers, particularly scientists who disclose public health dangers.
“DEP has a particularly troubling history and things thus far in the Corzine administration suggest that the back-scratching and undue industry influence will only accelerate,” Wolfe added. “If the Governor is serious about ethics reform he cannot sit idly by and watch the milk curdle at DEP.”
See improper trading of insider information
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability