Trenton — Stung by a string of embarrassing disclosures and breakdowns in toxic protections that have prompted Legislative oversight hearings, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is ordering its employees to keep any “potentially sensitive information confidential” and refrain from disclosing agency data to any outside parties “until it is ready for public distribution,” according to an Agency email released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
“The last thing New Jersey DEP needs is more secrecy,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, pointing to a number of recent fiascoes that were compounded by agency stonewalling. “For the bunker mentality to be getting this entrenched so early in the Corzine administration is disturbing.”
Just last week, the Legislature initiated long-awaited public oversight hearings on the DEP site remediation program. One of the series of agency scandals the Legislature reviewed involves scientific fraud in setting state chromium cleanup standards, including a dissenting report filed by one of DEP’s own scientists, Zoe Kelman, confirming those problems. Since making her concerns public, Ms. Kelman has been removed from chromium-related issues and denied meaningful work. DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson has not responded to a PEER request for clarification of Ms. Kelman’s status.
“Zoe Kelman’s case illustrates why attempts to limit or impede public policy discussion within public agencies is just plain wrong,” Wolfe added. “Agency specialists need to feel free to express their views and not be intimidated by a secretive management culture.”
In an email to all hazardous waste staff dated June 5, 2006, Assistant Commissioner Irene Kropp told staff members that the only “opportunity to vet issues with external interested parties [is] through the public review process when appropriate.” Yet, DEP has no formal peer review process and many of its internal policy deliberations lack any scientific component that would make them amenable to peer review.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court, with Justice Samuel Alito casting his first deciding vote, held that public servants have no First Amendment rights in their role as government employees but do enjoy First Amendment protection when speaking outside the workplace in their roles as citizens Garcetti v. Ceballos, No. 04-473, slip op. (U.S. Sup.Ct. Decided May 30, 2006). In addition, the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act allows employees to reveal “deception of, or misrepresentation to, any governmental entity,” “fraudulent…activity,” or actions “incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy concerning the public health,” provided that agency management has been notified of the concerns.
“The public’s business should be done in public,” concluded Wolfe. “These gag orders appear contrary to the intent of the state whistleblower law and seem designed to deny DEP employees what constitutional rights they still have.”
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.