For Immediate Release
Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
New Jersey Environmental Agency at Heart of Bribery Scandal
New Rules Needed to Ban 'Pay-to-Play' and Protect Staff from Strong-Arm Tactics
WASHINGTON - Last week's indictment of 44 people, including several New Jersey
officials and two state legislators, underscores that "pay-to-play" is
alive and well in the Garden State, especially within its Department of
Environmental Protection , according Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility (PEER). Today PEER proposed new rules to end the closed
door dealings within DEP that fuel corrupt practices and put its
professional staff in an untenable position.
To facilitate development projects, state legislators
pressure DEP to improperly approve permits, sign-off on incomplete
clean-ups and shelve enforcement actions. Typically, legislators
deliver their messages to the DEP Commissioner or the Assistant
Commissioners, who in turn direct staff. As one of the indicted
lawmakers, state Rep. Daniel Van Pelt, who sits on the committee
overseeing DEP, bragged to the FBI confidential informant, he knows the
"right guys" who "work" the "channels".
"The back channels into DEP need to be shut down," stated PEER
Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "As long as DEP does its business behind
closed doors, corruption will continue to blossom."
Today PEER is proposing transparency rules for DEP that are
virtually identical to ones which the agency rejected when PEER first
proposed them in 2007. These rules would provide:
- Notice of Meetings. DEP convenes closed-door meetings with
lobbyists, legislators and other insiders with no public attendance or
publication of meeting agendas. The agency defends this secrecy as a
matter of "executive privilege and the deliberative process privilege";
- Publication of Top Officials' Calendars. The DEP
Commissioner and top deputies routinely make decisions on enforcement
and other pollution control policies in meetings with legislators and
corporate executives, often from the same companies charged with
violations. DEP shields appointment calendars to protect "the privacy
interests" of attendees; and
- Repeal Gag Orders Forbidding
Staff from Talking to Media and Public. Under current DEP rules, agency
scientists and other specialists are barred from speaking without prior
approval from the agency Press Office. DEP says this is needed to
enforce the chain-of-command.
"A big problem in New Jersey DEP is that the professional staff has
little recourse when confronting management orders to less than
faithfully execute the law," Ruch added, noting that the state's
whistleblower law does not protect employee disclosures about threats
to public health, manipulation of science, mismanagement or ethics
violations. "Sunlight is the best hope for deterring sleazy deals."
Political influence over DEP is now so deep that it is an accepted
fact of life. For example, in a July 14, 2009 letter, DEP Acting
Assistant Commissioner Scott Brubaker explained why he was setting
aside water anti-pollution rules because legislators had introduce a
bill to bully DEP to bend over for a favored project:
"The Department is also under pressure from the development
community, which fears that the Department will unilaterally remove
sewer service areas. Recently, legislation has been introduced that
would extend the submission deadline...Together these added burdens would
preclude the Department from adopting any new or updated wastewater
management plan for the foreseeable future. Any Department effort to
withdraw sewer service areas would encourage this legislation."
"So long as DEP succumbs to political pressure, it invites that pressure," Ruch concluded.
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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.