Editorial: DEP's failure to serve and protect

Published June 23 2013

It's a sad reflection on the state of environmental protection in Florida when a state agency's lawyer fears for his job merely for enforcing the law. But the firing of Chris Byrd and several other attorneys has exposed more trouble within the Department of Environmental Protection under the leadership of Secretary Herschel Vinyard. Gov. Rick Scott should clean house before Vinyard does even more damage to the agency and to the environment.

Byrd told Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman this month that he had a sinking feeling after winning a trial victory against a Marion County couple whom a jury found had illegally filled in wetlands along the Rainbow River. Rather than celebrate, Byrd thought: "When (Deputy Secretary) Jeff Littlejohn hears about this, I'm probably going to lose my job." And sure enough, he did — after Littlejohn met with the defendants to hear their complaints. Byrd was one of four DEP lawyers ousted from their jobs. His colleague, Kelly Russell, told the Times they were fired because their legal advice "was not well received by" Littlejohn, his aides or "outside influences."

Vinyard and Littlejohn aren't talking, but a DEP spokesman said the four lawyers were fired from the 42-attorney legal team because of a drop in caseloads, not over policy disagreements. That explanation hardly is a comfort. Enforcement cases have dropped dramatically — to 799 last year, compared to 2,289 in 2010 — because DEP has taken a softer line with industry. The agency has slashed its workforce of inspectors, Byrd said, and now requires that Littlejohn's office sign off on any enforcement case before it goes to the attorneys. DEP disputes that claim, though it acknowledges that ranking officials "work with" in-house attorneys "to determine the best course of action" in permitting disputes. The net effect is the same — bargaining with polluters after the damage has been done. The practice also sends the message that people can circumvent the regulatory process and permitting laws with little risk of getting caught, and if they do get caught an apology is apparently enough.

This is hardly the first time that Vinyard and Littlejohn have undermined public trust in the department, and they are not protecting the environment. Staff attorneys should not be afraid to vigorously prosecute enforcement cases. And they shouldn't be second-guessed by political appointees who are interested in accommodating polluters at the expense of the state's natural resources. Scott has tolerated the problems with Vinyard's management for too long. Allowing him to stay means that Scott either shares Vinyard's lack of interest in protecting the environment or is more concerned about winning contributions from developers and other business interests than in preserving what's left of Florida's natural resources.