Hire the Clueless

Some say John Peter Suarez is a well-regarded career public servant, a "fair and balanced prosecutor" who has gained a reputation as a "very thorough" attorney while assembling the résumé of a government lawyer on the rise. He therefore may seem an unsurprising choice for a position in the federal regulatory apparatus -- but he is, by any standard, a bizarre selection for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) post for which the Bush administration has nominated him.

Suarez, who worked in the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey and was most recently the director of that state's gaming enforcement, has been nominated to head the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), the enforcement arm of the EPA -- though he has no experience in environmental policy. Not surprisingly, a host of environmental activists and at least one senator are rankled at the notion that the nation's top environmental enforcement job may go to someone with little discernible knowledge of matters environmental.

But their anger predates the Suarez nomination by about six months. Last August, Bush's first nominee for the top slot at the OECA, Donald Schregardus, found himself enveloped in a storm of controversy -- first over his record as director of the Ohio EPA from 1991-1999, then over accusations that he inappropriately fired a whistle-blower he allegedly felt had been too aggressive in investigating a cancer-cluster case. Senators Barbara Boxer and Charles Schumer placed a hold on his nomination, and on September 17 Schregardus withdrew his name.

At the time of the Schregardus nomination, environmentalists worried that the administration was trying to neuter the OECA by appointing someone whose views were "in outright opposition to the enforcement of federal laws," as the directors of a number of environmental groups wrote in a letter to senators last July. Now they fear that the Suarez nomination is really a continuation of the administration's assault on the OECA by other, less aggressive means. "You went from someone who has a really poor environmental record to someone who has no environmental record," says Maria Weidner of Earthjustice. Suarez may appear to be playing Anthony Kennedy to Schregardus's Robert Bork -- but Kennedy was at least capable of performing the job for which he was selected. Can the same be said for Suarez? It is a matter of some debate.

Boxer, for one, is not convinced. The senator, who serves on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, has said she would gladly support Suarez for a position in the Justice Department. But she has yet to make up her mind on his nomination to the OECA, saying through a spokesperson only that his lack of environmental experience is a source of concern. For Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Suarez engenders more than mere concern. "This person just flat out doesn't have the experience to make the judgment calls that are going to be required," he says. Environmentalists such as Ruch are already upset about cuts to the EPA's enforcement staff, and to the agency's total numbers of inspections and investigations -- not to mention an overall decline in the amount of pollution reduction. Looking at these numbers, and then at the Schregardus and Suarez nominations, Ruch and his cohorts fear they see the handwriting on the wall for the OECA -- at least a serious OECA. Anyone really committed to environmental enforcement, Ruch claims, wouldn't want this job anyway. "You are there to preside over the dismantlement of an enforcement program," he says, "and if you are an enforcement professional, that's probably not how you want to spend your time."

Ruch's argument -- that the job of properly overseeing the OECA requires environmental experience -- is substantially borne out by the office's history. Most but not all of the lawyers who have run the OECA since 1971 have had at least some background in environmental policy or litigation before assuming the job. Clinton's OECA chief, Steven Herman, was among the most experienced, having spent 15 years at the Justice Department as an environmental attorney before winning the nod to head the OECA. Without environmental experience, OECA directors become captives of the career staff, according to a former EPA attorney. "They become very fearful of making a stupid mistake," he says. "And the way they avoid making stupid mistakes is they do what the staff tells them." OECA chiefs with less environmental experience, he continues, have served more as placeholders, while those with more experience have tended to be proactive. "I don't think you'll find anyone who's done better in the job than Steve Herman," he says.

Does Suarez's background in New Jersey provide any clues to how he'd run the OECA? After leaving the U.S. attorney's office in 1998, he worked in the state's criminal-justice division and eventually became director of the state's gaming division -- where, says Jeff Ifrah, who worked for Suarez in the U.S. attorney's office, "he took on some very large and wealthy gaming entities." Perhaps most important, in between those two posts, Suarez served as general counsel to Governor Christie Todd Whitman, now the EPA's director. It seems safe to conclude that if he's confirmed for the OECA post, he won't lack for access to his boss.

Whatever Suarez's record, the question remains: Why exactly would America be better off with a chief environmental enforcement officer who knows nothing about the environment? "It's a handicap," says James Hoyte, a lecturer on environmental science and public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former secretary of environmental affairs for Massachusetts. "Whether it's critical or fatal that he doesn't have [that background], I wouldn't be able to say that." Depending on how Suarez's nomination fares in the Senate, Hoyte -- and everyone else in the environmental community -- may find out soon enough.