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Florida's top wetlands expert reinstated, but details remain murky

The state's top wetlands expert has been reinstated after a three-week investigation, but the question of who initiated it and why remains unclear.

Connie Bersok was put on paid leave from the state Department of Environmental Protection on May 11, two days after she refused to approve a permit for the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank in Clay County.

Bersok told co-workers she had complained to the DEP's inspector general about her bosses' push to approve the Highlands Ranch permit, then wound up suspended herself.

But the official investigation report released Tuesday makes no mention of Highlands Ranch. It says Bersok's division director complained about her not showing up at work and emailing official documents on her private email account. Both charges were ruled unfounded.

Corporate records show the Highlands Ranch project is backed by a private equity firm from Washington called the Carlyle Group that's known for its global political connections.

Highlands Ranch was seeking a permit from the DEP that would grant it hundreds of wetland "credits" that it could sell to developers and government agencies when they pave over wetlands and need to make up for the damage.

Wetland credits in that part of Florida have been sold for $100,000 each, and Highlands Ranch wanted 425 of them —most of them, Bersok found, for saving dry land, not for restoring swamps and marshes. Approving the permit with that many credits would "result in a net loss of wetland function," she wrote in an internal memo about the project.

So Bersok, a veteran DEP employee, wrote in a May 9 memo that she would not issue the permit. In an email that day to a co-worker, she said she had complained to the DEP's inspector general about her bosses bending the rules to say yes to Highlands Ranch, despite the environmental consequences.

"I explained the basic situation, without dropping any names, until she asked who was directing me to issue a bad permit," Bersok wrote about her conversation with the inspector general, Candie Fuller. "There was a pause, then she said that she would pursue whatever I sent her."

But Bersok found that she was the one on the spot. She wrote in a May 13 email to co-workers that after she refused to approve the Highlands Ranch permit, she returned to her office and discovered the file missing.

Then, Bersok wrote, she was told by her boss, Tim Rach, that she was being transferred from the wetlands office. That was done, she wrote, by order of water resources division director Mark Thomasson, who was hired by the DEP a year ago.

The reason Rach gave, she wrote, "was that I was not a good match for the mitigation/mitigation banking section and the direction the section was going. I asked if this was in relation to my handling of the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank, and Tim would not answer."

On May 11, she was sent a memo informing her she was being put on leave pending an investigation. A DEP spokeswoman said that after Bersok was cleared, she was reinstated to her original position in the agency's wetlands section.

The one-page investigation report from the inspector general's office makes no mention of Highlands Ranch or any complaint from Bersok. Instead, the report signed by Fuller states that Thomasson complained that Bersok had missed a day of work without an excuse and distributed official DEP documents in personal emails.

DEP Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn, who has been personally involved in the Highlands Ranch permit discussions, said in an interview with the Times that Bersok was not suspended over Highlands Ranch. Bersok herself has not been allowed by the DEP to discuss her case.

Former DEP attorney turned environmental activist Aliki Moncrief blasted the department for the way Bersok was treated.

"The report shows that DEP leadership had no basis to suspend Ms. Bersok," said Moncrief, executive director of Environment Florida. "Now they need to heed her recommendation against granting more credits to Highlands Ranch than they can scientifically defend."

Highlands Ranch spokeswoman Maria Coppola said the DEP has not yet approved its permit.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Florida's top wetlands expert reinstated, but details remain murky 06/05/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 6, 2012 11:24am]
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