Justice Department To Examine Whether It’s Too Easy On Polluters
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Justice Department will review allegations it lets corporate polluters off too easy and will let congressional investigators question its environmental crime prosecutors, officials said Tuesday.
The agency will convene a team of Justice Department lawyers to review allegations against its environmental crimes section that surfaced in hearings conducted last year by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., according to department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In addition, the Justice Department is taking the unusual step of allowing the staff of Dingell’s House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee to interview career prosecutors in the section.
Justice Department spokesman Joseph Krovisky said the agency has ″made a commitment″ to allow the subcommittee staff to interview the prosecutors. But Krovisky said procedures for the questioning have yet to be worked out.
The Justice Department usually resists attempts to let Congress question career prosecutors about why a particular investigation resulted in criminal charges.
Traditionally, policy-makers such as a U.S. attorney or a senior Justice Department official are offered as witnesses to explain the agency’s handling of a particular investigation.
Krovisky said he had no information on the internal review. But department officials said Associate Attorney General Webster L. Hubbell was ordering a review of allegations that surfaced at Dingell’s subcommittee hearings. One official said Hubbell wanted the probe wrapped up in 45 days.
At issue are what Dingell called ″disturbing allegations″ that enforcement of federal criminal laws against polluters ″is being undermined by a pattern of bizarre and misguided decisions″ by supervisors in the environmental crimes section.
Last September, six Environmental Protection Agency agents and their supervisors told Dingell’s subcommittee that the unit refused to bring criminal charges against corporate polluters in cases where the evidence justified indictments.
The hearing focused on six cases in which EPA officials and federal prosecutors in the field were in disagreement with the Washington-based managers of the environmental crimes section in the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Under Justice Department guidelines, the unit has the power to overrule U.S. attorneys who seek to bring criminal indictments in environmental cases.
In one case, the Republican attorney general of the state of Washington had complained that the Justice Department unit let a pesticide manufacturer plead guilty to a misdemeanor and pay a $15,000 fine for illegal chemical disposal even after the company offered to plead guilty to a felony.
In another case, a Washington state environmental agent testified that the unit overruled a recommendation by the local U.S. attorney to indict Weyerhaeuser Forest Products Co. and three company officials for hazardous waste dumping.
Officials at the unit argued that the company had developed an environmental compliance program and bringing criminal charges would only discourage voluntary efforts by private industry to clean up pollution, the agent told the subcommittee.
Apart from Dingell’s hearing, the environmental crimes unit was criticized by environmentalists who thought it struck an overly lenient plea bargain last year with Rockwell International Corp. The company paid an $18.5 million fine to settle criminal charges arising from its operation of the government-owned Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado.
The grand jury in the Rocky Flats case sought to indict eight individuals and another corporation, according a report of the panel’s secret investigation, which was leaked to an alternative newspaper in Colorado.
The unit also supervised the prosecution of Exxon for the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez tanker, which spilled 10 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The unit’s initial settlement with Exxon was rejected by a federal judge as too lenient; later, the company paid $1 billion in fines and cleanup costs.
During the Bush administration, senior Justice Department officials faced grillings from lawmakers about why they did not pursue leads in the case of the scandal-plagued Bank of Credit and Commerce International.
But a former senior official in the Justice Department during the Bush administration said it would be extraordinary for federal prosecutors to be questioned by Congress about why they did not bring criminal charges in a particular case.
Ira Raphaelson, counselor to William P. Barr, Bush’s attorney general, said such questioning might lead a prosecutor in the future to decide ″it’s easier to prosecute than to be questioned about why I didn’t prosecute.″