"Was it wrong to try to get the city back on its feet as quickly as possible?" an exasperated Christine Todd Whitman asked members of Congress. The occasion was Whitman's first appearance before the House subcommittee investigating her handling of New York air quality issues post-9/11, when she headed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Absolutely not," she continued. "Safety was first and foremost, but we weren't going to let the terrorists win."
There are many critics of the EPA's response to the admittedly unprecedented attacks. In August 2003, the EPA's own inspector general reported that there was not "sufficient data and analyses" to claim -- as Whitman did on September 18, 2001 -- that New York's air was "safe to breathe." The inspector general also found that EPA statements were confusing even to experienced toxicologists, and may have contributed to low rates of respirator use among Ground Zero workers. In February 2006, federal judge Deborah Batts called Whitman's statements post-9/11 "misleading" and "conscience shocking." In June 2007, the Government Accountability Office identified serious, continuing problems with how Whitman's EPA addressed indoor contamination in lower Manhattan.
The issue is more than academic. Since 2001, some 70 percent of Ground Zero workers -- tens of thousands of people, many without health insurance -- have had respiratory problems, including chronic illnesses, according to one medical study. Two deaths have been linked to World Trade Center dust, and reports of rare cancers are on the rise.
Yet in her Congressional testimony on June 25, 2007, Christie Whitman dismissed criticisms of her former agency as "misinformation, innuendo and outright falsehoods." Presumably, the nuclear power industry admires Whitman's rhetorical chutzpah.
When the Nuclear Energy Institute -- with help from its PR firm, Hill & Knowlton -- launched the "Clean and Safe Energy Coalition" in April 2006, Christie Whitman was named its co-chair, a paid position. Since then, the industry-funded campaign to re-brand nuclear power as clean, green and safe has benefited from Whitman's communications skills, political connections and environmentalist image.
It's Not Easy Being (Seen as) Green
Whether Whitman has earned green credentials is another matter.
She's often portrayed as well-meaning but stymied by hard-line Republicans. When Whitman announced her resignation from the EPA in May 2003, the Philadelphia Inquirer lauded her as a "voice of reason." David Letterman joked that the Bush administration thought she was "too soft on decimating pristine forests." Whitman's 2005 book "It's My Party, Too" fed this image, as did her recent admission that she left the EPA not for personal reasons, as she claimed at the time, but to avoid signing off on plans to ease factory pollution controls.
(Whitman's admission -- four years after her resignation -- was made the same week as the 9/11 air quality hearing. Just before the hearing, Whitman charged the administration of former mayor Rudy Giuliani with not doing enough to ensure that Ground Zero workers used respirators, and with hampering the EPA's response to a 2001 anthrax scare. Whitman's belated candor conveniently deflected attention away from Congress' investigation into her role post-9/11.)
Jim DiPeso, the policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection, is among those who give Christie Whitman an "A for effort." During Whitman's tenure at the EPA, "she was on such a tight leash," DiPeso told PR Watch. "I think that she wanted to push the administration towards regulating greenhouse gases, putting caps on carbon dioxide emissions, but the White House and the Vice President's office just simply wouldn't allow it." DiPeso's group is a strategic partner of Whitman's political action committee, the Republican Leadership Council.
Others are more critical of Whitman's tenure at the EPA. "At times it seemed as if Ms. Whitman had been appointed merely to make the Bush administration seem more interested in the environment," editorialized the Washington Post in May 2003. "Yet if she really disagreed with some of the decisions, it seems strange that Ms. Whitman stayed in her job as long as she did."
If it were Bush, Cheney et al. that kept Whitman's environmentalism in check, then perhaps she championed green issues prior to moving to Washington. But Whitman's record as governor of New Jersey, from 1994 to 2001, is spotty at best, according to reporters, state workers and environmentalists.
Open for Business
As she took office, Whitman famously declared New Jersey "open for business." Two and a half years later, an award-winning series in The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) examined the impact of the governor's new policies.
The newspaper found that, "in trying to attract new jobs and new business," the Whitman administration drastically cut the budget for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), with hundreds of layoffs and "an across-the-board five-hour weekly reduction in working hours." Subsequently, inspections and polluter fines decreased, the pace of toxic clean-ups slowed, and new "streamlined pollution permits" allowed increased dumping.
"Symbolic of the administration's priorities was the rewriting of the DEP's mission statement to add 'economic vitality' to its goals and to delete a promise to 'vigorously enforce' environmental laws," wrote The Record's Dunstan McNichol and Kelly Richmond. A new state Office of the Business Ombudsman, working with companies including repeat polluters, pressured the DEP to decrease fines and weaken environmental standards. Within DEP, Whitman established an Office of Dispute Resolution, to broker agreements "behind closed doors ... reducing environmental fines" and "extending the time [polluters] are given to clean up environmental hazards," according to The Record.
A 1997 survey of more than 700 DEP employees was particularly damning. More than two-thirds of respondents felt that "the regulated community excessively influences DEP permitting, policy and enforcement." More than three-quarters said environmental enforcement had decreased under Whitman, and more than 60 percent agreed that the state's "inaction or lack of enforcement has caused environmental damage."
What Christie Whitman touted as "a new chapter in the story of public-private cooperation in environmental protection" didn't seem like such a good deal for neighborhoods unable to get rid of hazardous waste, for emergency workers no longer able to access information on toxins at industrial sites, for homeowners denied compensation for damaging fuel and chemical spills, or for fishers dependent on state testing to ensure the safety of their catches.
Dunstan McNichol told PR Watch that the situation didn't improve after the 1996 Record series that he co-authored. "They've never gone back to fully funding the Department of Environmental Protection," he explained. "There are lots of areas of the Department that are still either just not in operation, or never really got underway. ... There's always this tension between economic growth and the environment, and I think since [Whitman's] administration, that balance has tilted."
However, the hoped-for economic boost was anemic. From 1994 to mid-1996, job growth in New Jersey was below the national average, and 80 percent of the new jobs "came in the lowest-paying sectors of the economy: services and retail sales," reported The Record. Up to today, according to McNichol, "The economy in New Jersey is not doing terrifically well."
Whitman did launch one major, popular environmental program as governor: the Garden State Preservation Trust Fund. While the original goal of purchasing one million acres of open space was not met, more than 400,000 acres have been preserved to date. That's a remarkable accomplishment, especially in the most densely populated U.S. state.
Even Whitman's critics applaud the dedicated conservation funding, but there are concerns about the program. Former DEP employee Bill Wolfe -- who became a whistleblower during the Whitman administration, leaking studies about mercury pollution in the state -- called the Trust Fund's land purchases "scattershot," made without reference to land use or conservation plans. The program also lacks regulatory safeguards to ensure that conservation goals are met, he added. "It's just creating a pot of money to give away to landowners," Wolfe told PR Watch.
Still, Christie Whitman is a PR asset for the nuclear industry. She's a major political figure widely seen as a moderate. She was the first (and only, to date) woman governor of New Jersey, who ascended to the national stage by responding to President Clinton's 1995 State of the Union address and co-chairing the 1996 Republican National Convention with then-Governor George W. Bush.
Moreover, Whitman has worked hard to obscure her spotty environmental record. Even as she was dismantling New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, "She would ride her bicycle, she would horseback ride, and she would do a lot of public events around open space preservation," Bill Wolfe told PR Watch. "So, the public perception of her was very favorable on the environment."
For the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy), Whitman has played a lower-profile role than her co-chair, Greenpeace activist turned PR consultant Patrick Moore. Both Whitman and Moore promote nuclear power as environmentally friendly. Both are being paid to do so, by the Nuclear Energy Institute. And overwhelmingly, media accounts fail to identify either as consultants for the nuclear industry.
A Nexis news database search revealed that nearly two-thirds of news items that mentioned Christine Todd Whitman and nuclear power, from April 2006 to August 2007, failed to disclose her financial relationship with the industry. Granted, Whitman's 35.5 percent disclosure rate is better than Moore's dismal rate of 12 percent (measured from April 2006 to March 2007). That difference is at least partially due to the smaller number of articles mentioning Whitman, and the greater relative percentage of industry trade press pieces. (In both pools of stories, the trade press articles were most likely to mention the Nuclear Energy Institute's funding of CASEnergy and its co-chairs.)
In some cases, journalists may have been informed about Whitman's industry consulting but chose not to mention it in their reports. But there are several instances where Whitman herself presumably could have disclosed her Nuclear Energy Institute work, but failed to do so. These include a September 2006 television interview with Whitman, an April 2007 letter to the editor from Whitman to Iowa's Des Moines Register, and op/eds penned by Whitman that ran in the Boston Globe (May 2006), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (September 2006), and North Carolina's Charlotte Observer (June 2007). CASEnergy press releases that named Whitman also failed to include disclosure.
Judging by CASEnergy's website, Whitman may be increasing her pro-nuclear public outreach. Her recent radio hits include WSMN and WGIR in New Hampshire, and WJR and WDET in Detroit. All four interviews were conducted on July 11, 2007, which -- along with a WSMN host's remark that "she's spending the day talking to talk shows all over the country" and the fact that the WSMN audio file is hosted on Hill & Knowlton's website (the URL contains hillandknowlton.com) -- suggests a radio media tour organized by the Nuclear Energy Institute's PR firm. In May 2007, Whitman appeared at CASEnergy events in Florida and Washington DC. The latter was a Capitol Hill Symposium also featuring Patrick Moore, Rep. James Clyburn, the American Enterprise Institute's Ben Wattenberg, the National Association of Manufacturers' Keith McCoy, and Environmental Defense's Mark Brownstein.
Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection doesn't think that Whitman's speaking in favor of nuclear power while being paid by the industry is a problem. "If the nuclear industry is paying for her services," he told PR Watch, "that should be out there. Everybody should be above board about that. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with it. ... The more important issue is what is the role of nuclear energy in a broader energy policy, and what is the role in driving down greenhouse gas emissions."
However, the public's perception of nuclear power and the energy policy debate is profoundly shaped by news media coverage. And news audiences are most swayed by people presented as independent experts. That's why the "third party technique" -- putting your words in someone else's mouth -- is standard PR practice.
That's also why nuclear power companies are launching pro-nuclear groups in areas where they operate plants. PR Watch previously reported on Entergy-funded groups in New York, Massachusetts and Vermont. In mid-August 2007, the "New Jersey Affordable, Clean, Reliable Energy Coalition" (NJ ACRE) was born. NJ ACRE's start-up funds came from Exelon, which operates the state's Oyster Creek nuclear power plant. Its media contact works at the PR firm Burson-Marsteller, which lists Exelon among its "past and present" energy clients. And one of NJ ACRE's two leaders is Richard Mroz, who served as chief counsel to Governor Christie Whitman.
Whose Line Is It, Anyway?
Christie Whitman is certainly not unique in making the transition from federal regulator to industry consultant. She opened her own firm, the Whitman Strategy Group, in late 2004. It has offices in New Jersey and Washington DC and offers services in issue management, crisis management and "brokering agreements among public, private, and non-profit sectors." Whitman's four partners in the firm also previously worked at the EPA.
What is remarkable about Whitman's current advocacy is how infrequently she talked about nuclear power, prior to being hired by the Nuclear Energy Institute. Even as a member of the unabashedly pro-nuclear Bush administration, Whitman rarely discussed nuclear energy. To be fair, nuclear power is much more the purview of the Energy Department, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Congress than it is an EPA concern. Still, her near silence on the issue seems curious, especially since she was part of the Cheney Energy Task Force.
News searches didn't identify any Whitman statements on nuclear energy while she served as governor, even though New Jersey gets roughly half its electricity from nuclear plants. While Whitman's assessments of nuclear power prior to 2006 are rare, they are positive, with the exception of a remark during a November 2004 interview: "Nuclear power isn't on the table -- people don't even want to talk about it."
The nuclear industry has been a defining client for the Whitman Strategy Group, but the firm's first ongoing client was FMC Corporation. FMC is a chemical and pesticide manufacturer "responsible for 136 Superfund sites around the country" that's been "subject to 47 EPA enforcement actions," according to the Star-Ledger. The New Jersey paper reported that FMC is "negotiating with EPA over the cleanup of arsenic-contaminated soil at a factory near Buffalo, N.Y." In response, Whitman told the Star-Ledger that "she will never represent any company looking to dodge environmental responsibilities." FMC has paid the Whitman Strategy Group at least $70,000, according to federal lobbying reports.
FMC isn't the only Whitman Strategy Group client with Superfund issues. Chevron Environmental Management Company retained the firm to address "issues associated with the cleanup of its Perth Amboy, NJ facility." Hovensa, which operates a Virgin Islands oil refinery partially owned by Venezuela's national oil company, has paid the firm at least $90,000, to "resolve a Title V emissions fee issue." National Re/Sources, a company that acquires and remediates "environmentally challenged properties," has paid the firm at least $140,000 to assist with "remediation issues in New Jersey under the auspices of the US EPA." Other clients listed in the Whitman Strategy Group's federal lobbying reports include the breast implant manufacturer Mentor, the energy company L S Power Development, and the industrial site developer ProLogis.
Federal lobbying reports suggest that the Whitman Strategy Group is popular among companies with business before the EPA. However, the reports don't contain any information on the firm's Nuclear Energy Institute account. That's because they only cover work focused on Washington legislators, policymakers and regulators. Christie Whitman, who works out of her firm's New Jersey office, has declined to say how much the nuclear industry is paying her firm. PR Watch's requests for comment from Whitman and her firm went unanswered.
When she opened her firm, Whitman told the Washington Post that it was "a way to stay involved in public policy and make a difference." That makes her current job sound like a continuation of her work as governor and EPA administrator. However, government officials are paid to act in the public interest, and are accountable to the public if they don't. Lobbyists and PR consultants are paid to further their clients' interests, and are accountable only to their clients and their bottom line.
This distinction is crucial, yet increasingly blurred. The confusion greatly benefits industries wanting to advance their interests from behind a screen of semi-anonymity. The losers include democratic debate, informed decision making and, often, the environment.
If Christie Whitman doesn't understand why, she should study her own record in New Jersey. The rest of us should start questioning Whitman's moderate, environmentalist image and ask who's benefiting from clothing their agenda in it. Diane Farsetta is a senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy / PR Watch.