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Public workers learn of support

A national environmental group that provides a confidential outlet for government employees to speak up about problems has paid a quiet visit to several Tampa Bay agencies.

Representatives of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility recently spoke with employees of Pasco and Hillsborough county government, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Tampa office of the Department of Environmental Protection.

"Our job as watchdogs is to stop employee intimidation and agency collusion with politically connected polluters," PEER director Richard Windsor wrote in a brochure handed to employees.

The group recently spurred a criminal inquiry into practices of the Department of Environmental Protection in Pensacola, but the visit here was designed only to tell employees about PEER, said legal counsel Steve Medina.

"It's a first step," Medina said. "We haven't singled out Pasco County in any way, like we did Pensacola. This was us giving information."

But local environmental activists requested the visit, saying they are concerned that the Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies are failing to enforce environmental laws because of outside political pressures.

"There are public employees who have called me that are afraid to speak out for fear of their job," said Susan Elko, a member of the Environmental Network, a Pasco-based group. "They need a safety net, and this is what PEER is offering."

Windsor and Medina are former DEP lawyers who say they were not allowed to do their jobs.

Medina said he met with a number of people in various Tampa Bay government agencies "that were very glad we were there. They seemed to already be experiencing enormous pressures _ they already have been going through lonely battles because of being the sole voice on behalf of the public."

He said the tremendous growth in the Tampa Bay area puts employees in a difficult spot; politicians may want to promote development and industry, while it is the job of public employees to make sure environmental laws are followed.

A survey of DEP employees led to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into practices in the Pensacola area. The DEP was later cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but a report said the agency's Northwest District office had failed to take tough action against serious and chronic environmental violations in the Panhandle.

In some cases, management overruled workers who urged stronger enforcement, the report said. Other enforcement cases were settled after powerful people intervened.

Activists here have similar complaints, pointing to the DEP's handling of a number of high-profile cases in Pasco, among other things.

One involves Lindrick Service Corp., a private water and sewer utility serving Gulf Harbors. Regulators say Lindrick has for years polluted Cross Bayou by dumping thousands of gallons of treated sewage that is toxic to fish and plants into the environmentally sensitive estuary.

Over the years, DEP has warned Lindrick numerous times but allowed it to continue operating.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, stepped in last fall after a series of Times reports on the utility. He said he wondered whether the agency's inaction had been affected by politics, as one DEP investigator had alleged.

At the time, Lindrick was represented by H. Clyde Hobby's law firm in many of its dealings with the agency. Hobby is a prominent political fund-raiser and friend of Gov. Lawton Chiles and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay. He is also the county's $100,000-a-year lobbyist.

The agency has since cracked down on the utility, issuing a violation notice. The utility disputed the agency's findings, and a hearing is set for June.

The lawyer now representing Lindrick is former DEP secretary Jake Varn.

In another case involving Hobby, the DEP's investigation of county commissioner David "Hap" Clark was delayed after Hobby went over the heads of lower-level investigators and made a direct appeal to the agency's second-in-command, agency records show.

The DEP charges that a gambling ship operating from Clark's docks is in violation of numerous environmental regulations and has torn up the Pithlachascotee River bottom.

Almost a year ago, DEP said it was preparing a lawsuit. That has not happened. Instead, the agency is continuing to negotiate with Clark, who has since retained Varn as his attorney.

Donna Slattery, a local activist who is concerned by both cases, contacted PEER nine months ago.

"I'm very glad that PEER came down here to visit the agencies because their visit is long overdue," said Slattery. "It's my own personal feeling that politicians do hold an invisible office at the Tampa DEP."