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DER official played politics with permits, workers say

Published Oct. 12, 2005

The state's top environmental official in the Panhandle for years has granted permits based on political favoritism, ignoring staff findings that the permits would harm the environment, according to more than a dozen current and former state employees.

The employees gave sworn statements to Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents, who were conducting a criminal investigation of Robert V. "Bob" Kriegel, a district manager for the Department of Environmental Regulation.

FDLE agents investigated allegations that Kriegel had taken bribes and that he knowingly issued permits for development and industrial discharge that caused pollution.

The agents found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. They did, however, recommend management changes.

DER employees told the agents that Kriegel issued questionable permits to people with the right connections. Conversely, they said, he retaliated, through rigid enforcement, against enemies of the "downtown crowd" of Pensacola area developers, lawyers and politicians. The group, they said, includes Sen. W.D. Childers, D-Pensacola, and incoming House Speaker Bolley L. "Bo" Johnson, D-Milton.

In an interview, Kriegel emphatically denied the charges in the report. He acknowledged that one marina permit was a mistake and said management changes were needed.

"Much of what we do, we do in the open and everybody gets a fair shot," he said.

"Sometimes emotion creeps into that process and since I'm the figurehead, sometimes that gets directed at me."

It was DER secretary Carol Browner who asked the FDLE to investigate Kriegel.

"When I came to the agency there were a number of questions and concerns raised to me sufficient in my mind to justify the need for a thorough investigation," she said. "Prior to the investigation, I met with Mr. Kriegel on several occasions to discuss management and changes in the office and in his personal style."

The investigation began in July 1991. Over eight months, agents interviewed 19 current and former DER employees and environmental activists. Some were political enemies of Childers and Johnson. Most were midlevel career employees whose day-to-day jobs were enforcement of environmental laws.

The FDLE investigated allegations that:

For favored applicants, Kriegel ignored or overrode the recommendations of his scientific staff.

Enforcement was inconsistent, harsh against "mom-and-pop" outfits with no clout, soft on big developers and industrial giants.

Kriegel kept secret personnel files on some employees.

Kriegel placed a gag order on scientists during a permit hearing and reprimanded a biologist who spoke to an attorney who opposed the permit.

Kriegel used environmental regulations to retaliate against political opponents of Childers and Johnson.

"While this limited inquiry was not able to substantiate the claims of criminal wrongdoing on the part of director Kriegel, his administrative actions dealing with questionable permitting may warrant a complete management review of the Northwest District by DER," the agents concluded.

Browner said she ordered management changes, including more authority for scientists in the permit process and requirements that Kriegel get approval from Tallahassee on sensitive permit applications.

"I feel real comfortable that in the last two years there has not been anything that is inappropriate in terms of environmental impacts," said Browner, who was appointed to her job in 1991 by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Several DER employees and ex-employees told the FDLE that Browner was prepared to fire Kriegel about a year ago, but Childers, Johnson, Sen. Pat Thomas, D-Quincy, and other Panhandle politicians intervened.

The FDLE did not interview Browner, and she wouldn't respond to that question from the Times.

Childers, D-Pensacola, said he recalled hearing that Kriegel might be out the door, and said he did call Browner.

"I think every elected official over there did," Childers said, "because we heard they were going to bring somebody in from New York, and I called to find out what was going on. But others, not just I, called her.

"Hell no, that didn't influence" Browner or save Kriegel's job, he said.

Kip Jackson, Johnson's legislative aide, said he doubted Johnson had called Browner about Kriegel.

"When we would hear those things about Bob we would say he's not really well-liked by business people and he's not really well-liked by the environmentalists, so he must be doing a good job," he said.

Pressure for development

Northwest Florida boasts the kind of unspoiled beauty that tourists might have seen in Clearwater and Miami 50 years ago.

Kriegel, as district manager since 1976, is in charge of the permits required for dredge and fill, marinas, coastal development and industrial pollution.

An avid sailor, Kriegel, 45, is a director of the Pensacola Yacht Club, where he keeps his 37-foot sailboat, Blind Hog.

FDLE agents asked the DER employees if they knew of Kriegel taking bribes for granting questionable permits.

"I don't have any knowledge of money changing hands," said Penny Guglielmoni, who now works as a systems analyst for Eglin Air Force Base. "I do believe that for political influence he allowed permits."

Asked her opinion of Kriegel's attitude on protecting the environment, she said, "Somewhere down at the bottom. Sailing first, his friends at the Yacht Club are second and food's next and the environment comes in there somewhere."

DER inspector Hal Lunsford said he learned about Kriegel's secret files when he could not obtain his personnel records.

"He has his own personal file he keeps on special things, and he makes sure he doesn't have a paper trail. It's real careful," Lunsford, now an Escambia County planner, told agents.

"He has nine lives. No I take it back, he has 18 lives. He can land on his feet every time. He's a great politician. He knows every move in the book on politics, and knows how to intimidate and harass an employee until he absolutely quits like I did."

Lunsford told the FDLE he thought such practices as keeping personnel files under lock and key in his office was Kriegel's means of harassment and intimidation of employees.

Employees and environmental activists who have fought against permits contended that Kriegel is protected by politicians, especially Childers.

Childers said he has made calls on behalf of constituents who had an application pending before DER. He said he did nothing improper.

"I never tried to influence Kriegel on anything," he said. If Childers is named in the files, he said, it's only because he is doing routine constituent service.

"I've been a senator for 22 years," he said. "You can go through anybody's file, my name will be in it. If it's not, there's something wrong."

Champion paper

Champion International Paper Co., a big Pensacola paper mill, had to renew a permit in 1988. A group called the Perdido Bay Environmental Association contested it.

The EPA had found dioxin in Upper Perdido Bay and issued a warning against eating the fish. The environmentalists wanted to force the DER to enforce water quality regulations on industrial pollutants.

For previous permits, Kriegel had not required Champion to meet water quality standards. He had routinely issued variances allowing the mill to dump pollutants into the bay. Now, with the company negotiating a five-year extension of generous permitting guidelines, the environmentalists feared pollution would get worse.

"Kriegel essentially gave away the store," Randi Denker, a former DER attorney who represented the group, said in a recent interview. "It was shocking, more variances, they allowed them to expand. We went in to sue and within a short time got an enormous amount of concessions because the DER people turned on him."

Before the hearing, the district's lawyer had ordered DER's biologists not to talk with Denker. One of the biologists, Glenn Butts, was reprimanded after the hearing for his testimony.

"During the Champion hearing, the word "politics' came up and impressions were given that it had a substantive role in the department's permitting process," Butts' boss wrote. "You are cautioned to avoid making statements public or private that are false or misleading."

The biologists were in "a difficult situation," Doug MacLaughlin, another supervisor, wrote to Kriegel. "They had verified many water quality violations over the past several years in 11-mile Creek and Upper Perdido Bay. In their professional opinions they believed the Champion paper mill was a major cause of these violations."

Kriegel said there was no attempt to intimidate the staff during the Champion hearing. The paper mill, he said, is "probably one of the best regulated in Florida."


References to W.D. Childers and Bo Johnson appear frequently in interviews when agents ask about political influence, but only a few cases in the FDLE file are tied to Johnson or Childers.

In August 1991, Johnson wrote a letter to Kriegel after meeting with the owners of the Holley Navarre wastewater treatment plant in Santa Rosa County. Johnson passed along their concerns that a proposed fine of $12,700 was excessive "given that they have caused no pollution problems." The fine was reduced to $5,000.

"That happens fairly routinely," Kriegel said. "We probably met with those individuals and discussed the penalty and argued."

Kriegel said such settlements are more rare now than a year ago. "The agency has better-defined enforcement now. We're tougher."

Kriegel overruled his staff on three successive permits for filling wetlands for the Deerpoint Cove development in Gulf Breeze County, according to the FDLE investigation. The developer was Neal Colley, a friend and past business associate of Johnson. There was no allegation Johnson had intervened in the case.

Childers is identified by DER employees as the muscle behind a permit issued in the mid-1980s for a marina and motel on Pensacola Beach proposed by lawyer-developer Fred Levin, in which Childers' wife was an investor. The marina won a permit over objections of environmentalists but was never built.

So much harm came from the granting of a permit for the Sandestin Marina in 1981 that another agency closed Horseshoe Bayou on Choctawhatchee Bay for oyster harvesting and fishing. Kriegel calls the permit a mistake.

DER employees refer to the Sandestin permit as an example of bending the rules for special interests.

While employees up and down the line recommended no permit, Kriegel ignored the recommendations. He and Fred Donovan, a Pensacola engineer who represented the developer, met with then-secretary Victoria Tschinkel and came back with a permit.

During construction of the marina, heavy metals from the pilings were discovered in the bayou. The Coast Guard and Department of Natural Resources discovered high levels of toxins in the shellfish and closed the bay to fishing.

DER inspectors and scientists told FDLE agents that episodes like the Sandestin Marina and Champion permit left them demoralized about enforcing the laws.

Some employees told the FDLE they thought Kriegel had broken the law because "his failure to perform responsibly has in effect willfully caused pollution," the FDLE said.

The investigation did not substantiate that, FDLE said. DER rules and policies give the district director broad decision-making authority on permitting.

Browner said she thinks the management changes have improved things in Northwest Florida and given lower-ranking employees more confidence in challenging their bosses if the environment is at stake.

"I have made it clear to all district managers and division directors (in Tallahassee) in no way shape or form are they to overturn scientific analysis," she said.