In 2003, when a leaky gypsum stack at an abandoned phosphate plant threatened to kill a vast cross section of Tampa Bay's marine life, Charles Kovach came up with a solution that saved the bay.
But this month, 17 years after he was hired by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Kovach was one of 58 DEP employees laid off by the agency. Kovach believes those layoffs were designed to loosen regulation of polluting industries.
"I've seen the way politics has influenced that agency in the past, but never like this," Kovach said. "It's not about compliance (with the rules). It's about making things look like they're compliant."
On top of the layoffs is the fact that DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard has installed a number of new people in the agency's upper ranks whose prior experience was working as engineers or consultants for companies the DEP regulates.
The DEP's deputy secretary in charge of regulatory programs previously spent a decade as an engineer who specialized in getting clients their environmental permits. Another engineer who worked for developers heads up the division of water resources. A lawyer who helped power plants get their permits is now in charge of air pollution permitting. An engineering company lobbyist became a deputy director overseeing water and sewer facilities.
And the DEP's chief operating officer is a former chemical company and real estate executive from Brandon. He's not an employee, though. He's a consultant who's being paid $83 an hour — more than Vinyard makes on a per-hour basis — to advise Vinyard and his staff on ways to save money.
The DEP "was never great," said Mark Bardolph, a 27-year DEP veteran — and onetime whistle-blower — who was laid off from the Tallahassee office. "But now it's all a political farce."
DEP press secretary Patrick Gillespie defended the agency's staffing under Vinyard.
"The department strives to employ the most qualified staff members and seeks a diverse group of individuals to lead and support our mission of protecting the environment," Gillespie said in an e-mail. The layoffs weren't aimed at politicizing the agency or placating industry, Gillespie said. Instead, he said, the DEP was ensuring that "staffing levels are reflected by workloads and supporting the mission of protecting the environment."
The agency's leaders "have spent months assessing staff and structures to identify inefficiencies and improvements and how to more effectively carry out our duties," he said.
As for Brandon-based consultant Randall F. "Randy" Greene, Gillespie said he was hired because he "has a background in financial consulting and transactions and specializes in strategic and financial planning for companies and their officers."
However, Gillespie could provide no contracts or other paperwork documenting what Greene does or when and why he was hired. Gillespie said he only works part-time but a state website lists Greene as a full-time employee. Greene could not be reached for comment, but his Linkedin entry says he has served as the DEP's chief operating officer since September 2011.
The hiring of people from the private sector to run the agency's most important divisions has been going on since Vinyard, a shipyard executive, was appointed to the office in January 2011 by Gov. Rick Scott. According to former employees, the hiring and layoffs reflect the Scott administration's pro-business attitudes.
"It's a hatred of regulation in general and in particular environmental regulations," Bardolph said. "It's profit that counts."
Kovach, Bardolph and the other employees who were laid off learned their fate in November, but were kept on the payroll until this month to give them time to find new employment. One was notified via e-mail while on active duty with the Coast Guard, according to the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
"The majority of positions they were eliminating are compliance and enforcement positions," said PEER's Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney. "They want to essentially turn the agency over to the regulated industries."
Gillespie called Phillips' allegations "baseless" and said, "Rather than allow for environmental harm to occur and fine an entity after the fact, the department has put more effort into outreach and education in order to keep businesses and other permit holders in compliance."
Both Kovach and Bardolph said the layoffs appeared to target more experienced employees, regardless of their past achievements or the importance of their jobs.
"They got rid of everyone with any history and knowledge," Kovach said. The people who remain, he predicted, will be so cowed they "won't be able to speak their minds."
Kovach was not known to be shy about speaking up. Nine years ago, when the bankrupt Piney Point phosphate plant began leaking and threatened to spill millions of gallons of waste into the bay, it was his proposal that saved the day: load it onto barges that sprayed it across a 20,000-square-mile area in the Gulf of Mexico.
When his bosses told him he was being laid off, Kovach said, "they said, 'Don't you think it's about time you look for a new career?' " When he asked what they meant, "they suggested academia."
Bardolph had run into trouble for speaking out before. As a state dairy inspector, he filed a complaint in 1999 alleging the DEP had failed to protect the aquifer from animal waste. As a result, he was transferred to a section that had nothing to do with permitting. Instead, he worked with people whose wells had been contaminated to help them find a new source of water. He was assisting a dozen or so when the ax fell, he said, and he was escorted out of the office with his belongings in a box.
The people deciding who was laid off "looked at an organizational chart, but they didn't even know what people did," Bardolph said. "My boss was just outraged that they got rid of me."
Then, Bardolph said, they got rid of his boss, too.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]