Washington, DC — Jimmy Palmer, the top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official for the Southeastern U.S., served as the lawyer for Mississippi developers while they were committing pollution violations that caused them to be sentenced to lengthy federal prison terms this week. At their criminal trial this spring, Palmer testified against his own agency, according to trial testimony released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Palmer testified that he considered EPA to have been “unethical,” heavy handed” and on a “crusade to destroy” his former client, who was then found guilty on precisely the grounds cited by EPA — and disputed by Palmer.
Palmer was selected by President Bush to oversee EPA operations in the eight-state Southeastern Region in October 2001 and was sworn in following Senate confirmation the following January. At the time of his selection, Palmer was the lawyer for a Mississippi developer named Robert Lucas who sought Palmer’s help in subdividing land and installing septic tanks in a 2600-acre development called Big Hills Acres.
In March 2005, after a jury trial, Lucas was convicted for misrepresenting the habitability of the lots and installing septic systems in saturated wetland soils at Big Hill Acres, despite warnings from the state Department of Health that doing so created a public health threat. Lucas also ignored numerous warnings, as well as cease and desist orders, from both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA because the deteriorating systems threatened to contaminate the local drinking water aquifer
This week Lucas was sentenced to 9 years in federal prison and his daughter Robbie was sentenced to prison for 7 years and three months. The U.S. Department of Justice hailed the sentences with one official calling them a “landmark criminal case [that] sends a strong message that corporations and individuals who commit flagrant violations of our environmental laws will be prosecuted vigorously and will face the possibility of long prison sentences.”
At the trial, Lucas called Palmer as a defense witness. Palmer, testifying on his own time under subpoena, confirmed his role in advising Lucas in how to sell lots for development despite official cease and desist orders. Palmer also admitted that he regarded EPA staff as “unethical” and overzealous in enforcing the Clean Water Act and aggressively resisted earlier enforcement efforts.
“Jimmy Palmer’s conduct in the Big Hills Acres case raises serious questions about his fitness to continue serving as a federal official who is supposed to be enforcing the very environmental laws that his clients, following his advice, were flouting,” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that EPA has yet to veto a single development project for wetlands violations, or any other reason, during Palmer’s tenure. “In his official capacity, Palmer acts as if he is still representing unscrupulous developers.”