In recent weeks, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has emphatically denied that the suspension of its top wetlands expert was triggered by her refusal to approve a mitigation permit for a well-connected landowner. Now it looks like the real sin in her superiors' eyes stemmed from their belief she might have leaked this public information to — gasp — the public. Now the state inspector general is investigating, and it appears the DEP is more interested in controlling the flow of public information than in protecting Florida's natural resources.
As the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman recently reported, Connie Bersok was put on paid leave and investigated for three weeks in May after she refused to sign a permit expanding wetland mitigation credits for Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank under a new scheme endorsed by her superiors. An attorney for the mitigation bank — which had already failed to win more credits through an administrative law court or the Legislature — wrote the proposed new policy. Upon review, Bersok concluded that the plan would not comply with state law because it lacked assurances that any wetland restoration work would actually be done.
Agency officials denied that Bersok's suspension had anything to do with her decision about the permit. But newly released documents show that her bosses feared she had told outsiders about her decision — even though her memo explaining her refusal is a public record available to anyone under Florida law. Bersok's superiors asked whether she had contacted specific people, including the media and environmental advocates. Ultimately she was cleared, and it's worth noting that Bersok — whose travails were first reported in the Times — has repeatedly declined to speak to the Times without permission of her superiors.
Presumably, Bersok's bosses were hoping they could quietly persuade the scientist to reverse her decision or mitigate it in some other way. That's a far cry from the goal DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard espoused in May in a meeting with the Times editorial board: efficient and consistent regulation that followed the science.
All indications are Vinyard's DEP tried to silence a scientist unwilling to inconsistently apply regulation. Now with a second investigation launched — this time of the DEP leaders themselves — the agency has also failed at efficiency.