Washington, DC — The Florida Department of Environmental Protection screened a key enforcement supervisor for promotion on the basis of his campaign contributions, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The agency also directed the supervisor to interview with a prominent Republican political contributor as part of his selection process. Shortly after the supervisor was promoted, pollution enforcement actions against a landfill managed by that contributor abruptly stopped.
PEER is requesting a criminal investigation by the States Attorneys in Tallahassee and Pensacola into political contributions and connections influencing state environmental enforcement and personnel decisions.
“Politics are polluting Florida’s environmental agency,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former enforcement attorney for Florida DEP, noting that under “reforms” enacted at the request of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, top agency officials now have almost unlimited discretion in hiring and firing supervisors and managers. “Campaign contributions appear to be the coin of the realm inside state government.”
Records obtained by PEER under Florida’s Sunshine Law show that state DEP managers requested a printout on the past political contributions of Henry Hernandez while considering whether to promote him to serve as the Environmental Administrator for the agency’s Panama City Field Office. In fact, the printout showing Hernandez’s campaign contributions in Florida’s 2002, General Election, as well as to the 2003 Special Election for Senate District 26 and House District 30 were maintained as part of his official personnel file.
Prior to his being approved for this promotion, DEP administrators asked Hernandez to interview with William Gerald Harrison, Jr. over lunch. Harrison is a prominent Panama City attorney, a registered lobbyist for the St. Joe Company, a member of Governor Jeb Bush’s 1998-1999 transition team and a member of President George W. Bush’s transition team in 2000-2001. Harrison was also on the Board of Directors for Big Wheel Recycling, Inc., a Bay County landfill operator under investigation by Hernandez’s predecessor who resigned in December 2002.
After approving Hernandez’s promotion, DEP moved to forego enforcement against the Big Wheel facility. In ignoring the specific findings of prior inspections, the agency violated its own procedures and continued a pattern of complete non-enforcement at the troubled site.
“Where there is smoke there is usually fire and it is getting pretty smoky up here,” added Phillips. Attempts by PEER to find out if campaign contributions of other DEP supervisors were scrutinized by agency officials have been blocked.