Environment

Under van der Vaart, DEQ legal staff flourished, while number of scientists, support staff decreased

For attorneys working at the NC Department of Environmental Quality, the last four years were like living in the land of milk and honey. Rapid promotions, new positions, job security. For DEQ scientists, enforcement and monitoring staff, though, not so much.

Robin Smith, former assistant secretary of the environment, published a sobering post on her SmithEnvironment blog, detailing the deep cuts to DEQ since 2009: That includes an 18 percent reduction in water quality and water resources staff, and since 2010, a 20 percent reduction in Division of Coastal Management staff, as well as many other cuts to key positions.

Some of these cuts were enacted under the Perdue administration, when the recession hit. But others happened since 2011, when the legislature targeted specific programs and positions within DEQ to be eliminated.

The consequences have been severe, Smith writes:

Loss of staff has already lengthened some  permitting times and the department’s permitting programs are not in a good position to respond to increased development activity as the economy continues to improve. Staff reductions have also affected DEQ’s ability to provide compliance assistance and enforce environmental laws.

But while these cuts were happening, during the McCrory administration DEQ’s Office of General Counsel added people, according to state records obtained by NCPW. Although there were reductions in 2016, those job cuts were for political reasons exacted by Secretary Donald van der Vaart, not budgetary decisions by the legislature.

NCPW requested the list of attorneys, their hire dates, positions and salaries, from the State Personnel Office. We compared that list to the one posted on the DEQ website, which says the General Counsel’s office is “small” and comprised of five people: Three attorneys (Sam Hayes, Craig Bromby and Drew Norton) an administrative assistant and a policy development analyst.

That online list didn’t include the nine attorneys at the Department of Justice who worked under contract with DEQ. Counting the contract attorneys, there were 14 legal staff available to DEQ at the end of 2014.

(Note that some of the attorney’s LinkedIn pages listed slightly different start dates; NCPW stuck with the personnel records for consistency.)

These three attorneys were hired under the tenure of former DEQ Secretary John Skvarla, according to dates provide by state personnel records.

 

In January 2015, Gov. Pat McCrory shifted Skvarla to lead the Commerce Department, replacing him with Donald van der Vaart. By the end of Vaart’s first year, the secretary had added four attorneys to the DEQ general counsel’s office.

         Source: State Personnel Office

Meanwhile, other departments, like sedimentation control, were shrinking dramatically. Even administrative staff took a hit, according to Smith: Nearly 28 positions were eliminated in budgeting, IT, personnel and public affairs.

However, DEQ’s extra attorneys came in handy: In July and August of 2015, DEQ sued the EPA over the expansion of the Clean Water Act, as well as the Clean Power Plan. Then-Attorney General Roy Cooper declined to represent the state in those lawsuits.

Cooper’s refusal resulted in political retribution from van der Vaart. In April 2016, van der Vaart chose not to renew contracts with the Department of Justice for the nine attorneys and legal support staff.

At the time, DEQ spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco told WRAL that “North Carolina’s environment is too important to place in the hands of an Attorney General’s Office that has a record of making political decisions about which cases it wants to defend.”

Hawco told WRAL that the contract attorneys were encouraged to apply to DEQ. But most of them stayed at the Justice Department. According to the DOJ, three people, a lawyer, a paralegal and  a program assistant accepted positions within DEQ. The remaining six work in other divisions at DOJ.

The total number of attorneys and support staff in the general counsel’s office, according to state personnel records, is now 12. If Cooper drops the lawsuits against the federal government, that should be enough.

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