MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A top political appointee at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources chose to handle a complaint against a waste hauler internally instead of referring the case to the state Department of Justice for prosecution, DNR records show.
Scott Gunderson, executive assistant to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, "made an extra effort" to deal with the complaint internally last year even though the agency's enforcement staff urged that the case be referred to the Justice Department, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Sunday.
The DOJ could have imposed fines of tens of thousands of dollars, the State Journal reported. Instead, Gunderson decided to ask district attorneys in Waukesha and Jefferson counties to issue five citations against Herr Environmental and fine the Oconomowoc company $4,338 - the minimum forfeiture for the permit violations.
DNR staff had found the company was treating fields with so much human waste from septic tanks it risked poisoning nearby wells. The lead DNR investigator called the permit violations "among the worst" he'd seen.
Gunderson and Steve Sisbach, a law enforcement program manager who worked on the case, defended the decision to issue citations. They said it could force the company into compliance faster rather than waiting for the Justice Department to act.
Gunderson, a former Republican state representative, received $750 in campaign contributions from the owner of the company, Richard Herr, and Herr's wife in 2006 and 2008, the State Journal reported.
Last week, Gunderson said he forgot when he agreed to oversee the case that he accepted their political contributions. The Herrs are major supporters of Republican campaigns, as well as some Democratic candidates. Even if he had remembered, Gunderson said, it would not have influenced his decision.
Normally, the case would have been assigned to DNR Deputy Secretary Matt Moroney, who said he handed it to Gunderson because he was acquainted with another officer from Herr Environmental. But agency records show Moroney, also a political appointee and the former executive director of the Metropolitan Builders of Greater Milwaukee, intervened at least once on behalf of the company prior to his recusal.
A state ethics administrator found that Gunderson and Moroney did not violate the state's ethics code in their handling of the case. Jonathan Becker, head of the state Division of Ethics and Accountability, said the state's ethics code did not prohibit Gunderson's participation because he received the contributions as a legislator, a position he no longer holds.
Critics say the handling of the case raises questions about whether the political and business ties of top DNR administrators appointed by Gov. Scott Walker are influencing their handling of law enforcement cases.
Kathleen Falk, a Democratic candidate for governor, renewed her call Sunday for Stepp's immediate removal as DNR secretary. In a statement, Falk said the report shows "a dangerous culture of cronyism and favoritism" and said if elected governor she would conduct a top-to-bottom review of the agency to remove any political interference.
Enforcement by the DNR has dropped in the past two years, with the issuance of violation notices reaching a 12-year low last year. Referrals to the Department of Justice also are down, from the 12-year annual average of 65 to 21 in 2011.
Stepp and other administrators blame the drop on lack of staff and a change in philosophy that emphasizes cooperation with businesses and bringing violators into compliance earlier rather than relying on prosecution.
In a statement Friday, the governor's office praised the DNR's approach.
"Increasing compliance and decreasing the number of environmental regulation violations is a good thing for Wisconsin's valuable natural resources, Wisconsin residents, tourism, our economy and ultimately for the next generation," Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie wrote.
According to the staff memorandum requesting referral to the Justice Department, Herr Environmental's records showed the company may have spread human waste on Jefferson County farm fields in 2009 at three times the levels allowed by its permit. The fields are adjacent to about 30 residences in a rural Jefferson County subdivision as well as five neighboring farms. About 40 drinking water wells are nearby, according to DNR documents.
Wastewater specialist and lead investigator David Bolha said he and other agency staff feared potential threats to public health, including possibly dangerous levels of nitrates in wells.
"Our recommendation, looking at this with my staff, was that we felt this was serious enough for the DOJ rather than citations," said Saji Villoth, a DNR environmental enforcement specialist in Milwaukee.
Gunderson said he hardly recalled reading Villoth's referral and said the potential health implications of Herr's actions were not discussed at length in the meetings he had with staff. Instead, records show Gunderson and other DNR administrators
sought to iron out the problem in meetings with Herr and Herr's state representative, Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, who interceded on his behalf. Kleefisch is married to Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
Herr did not respond to telephone and email requests for comment from the State Journal.
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