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Florida DEP Secretary Jon Steverson going to work for firm that just got DEP contract

Workers clean tarballs from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Waveland beach in 2010.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Workers clean tarballs from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Waveland beach in 2010. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Published Jan. 30, 2017

At the end of January, two things will change about the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

One is that Secretary Jon Steverson will leave his post after two stormy years in charge to take a job with the law firm of Foley & Lardner.

The other is that Steverson's new employers at Foley & Lardner will take over representing Florida in handling the billions of dollars awarded to the state as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In a contract signed at the end of November, the DEP agreed to pay Foley & Lardner $96,000 a year to represent Florida in meetings of the Restore Council, a coalition of states and federal agencies that oversee the spending of the oil spill settlement money.

The employee at Foley & Lardner who will handle those duties: Steverson's predecessor at the DEP, former secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr., who was hired by the company after he quit the agency in 2014.

The fact that DEP's leader was hired by a company that just received a DEP contract "doesn't pass the smell test," said Ben Wilcox of the watchdog group Integrity Florida. "It's pretty stinky. It's almost like the new job is a thank-you for sending the contract their way."

An agency spokeswoman defended the Foley & Lardner contract by noting that Steverson's new employer would be paid using money from BP's settlement, not from the DEP's own budget.

"No taxpayer dollars will be used for these services," said DEP spokeswoman Lauren Engel.

Until now, Florida's representative on the council has been Mimi Drew, who served as DEP secretary for a year under then-Gov. Charlie Crist and was then replaced by Vinyard, Gov. Rick Scott's first DEP secretary. Vinyard stayed three years.

Drew, who does not work for Foley & Lardner, said she is ready to retire and spend time traveling with her husband.

"I've been doing this for almost seven years," she said, "and I want some time off."

Drew had been an employee at DEP for 30 years, dating to when it was known as the Department of Environmental Regulation. Vinyard was a Jacksonville shipyard executive with no prior experience running a government agency when he took over the DEP.

He was chosen by Scott as the ideal person to replace Drew on the Restore Council, Engel said.

"As this position represents Florida on a state and federal council that is working to restore the ecosystem and the economy of the Gulf Coast region, it is important that Florida be represented by someone knowledgeable about the effects of the oil spill on Florida's environment and communities," she said.

Foley & Lardner, an international law firm with four Florida offices, is also one of the firms the state is paying to handle its lawsuit against Georgia over water rights. Florida sued Georgia in 2013, claiming that the state's excessive use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers was endangering Florida's oyster industry. Foley & Lardner is to be paid $2.6 million.

Scott said Tuesday he has no problem with Steverson taking a job with a company that has a contract with the agency he led.

"We have people who come to work for the state and they work very hard and then they find opportunities," he said. "That's just part of the process. . . . If they have these opportunities, then I'm glad for them."

Steverson, who did not respond to repeated requests from the Tampa Bay Times for an interview during his two years in office, was not available for comment.

His tenure as the head of DEP was marked by controversy. The agency was criticized for not telling the public for three weeks about a sinkhole at Mosaic's Mulberry phosphate plant last year. Steverson's call to allow hunting, timber harvesting and cattle grazing at state parks drew complaints that his plan would ruin a major tourist draw. And his push for new water quality standards that allow a larger amount of cancer-causing chemicals to be dumped into Florida's waterways has been challenged by environmental groups.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.