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The Clinton Files: Revenge Play at EPA

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From 1993 to 2001, Alexander Cockburn and I wrote dozens of articles on the political corruption of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their cronies in DC and Arkansas. In many ways, those years represented the golden age of political journalism, with a fresh scandal ripening each month. As Hillary cruises toward the Democratic nomination, if not the White House, it’s time to dig into the Clinton Files and resurrect the stories of sleaze, malfeasance and transgression from that feculent decade. — JSC

As the moving vans were pulling up at the White House, Bill Clinton doled out about 62 pardons, many of them for former cronies, corporate influence peddlers and a polluter or two. One of the most notable was Archie Schaffer, a major domo at Tyson Foods, the Arkansas food empire, and longtime underwriter of Clinton’s political career. Schaffer had been convicted by a jury of violating the Meat Inspection Act by trying to influence agricultural policy when he arranged for Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy to attend a Tyson birthday party in Arkansas in 1993. Tyson’s is a major polluter of the White River, whose destruction Clinton sedulously overlooked during his time as governor.

Even as Schaffer was getting his record swiped clean, Clinton’s political appointees at the EPA were moving to crack down on one of the agency’s top whistleblowers, Hugh Kaufman, the lead investigator in EPA’s ombudsman’s office. Kaufman has been a fly-in-the-ointment at EPA for more than 20 years, exposing corruption in industry and government. In his position at the ombudsman’s office, Kaufman has opened field hearings where citizens have been able to grill EPA administrators about clean up plans.

Kaufman said his reassignment was politically motivated, retaliation for his investigations into three sensitive issues for Al Gore and EPA administrator Carol Browner: the WTI incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio; the EPA’s ludicrous decision to bury radioactive waste in the middle of a Denver neighborhood; and the mishandling of Superfund cleanups in Florida. Kaufman was also monitoring the bungled cleanup of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

“After Gore conceded, there was a confluence of revenge from the politicos and the entrenched bureaucracy,” Kaufman said

Kaufman was removed from his position by Tim Fields on December 14, 2000, the day after Gore finally conceded the presidential race. Fields is a Clinton appointee who heads the EPA’s Superfund division, a frequent target of criticism for Kaufman and environmentalists. Fields maintains that Kaufman is biased and abrasive and he called Kaufman’s charge that he had been transferred as a retaliatory measure “another of his shams he’s trying to pull.”

But Kaufman sees it as political payback: “The ombudsman’s investigations of clean-ups in Ohio and Florida may have cost Gore votes… They’re attacking the ombudsman’s office. Step one is to get rid of me. That cripples the function of the office.”

The EPA’s ombudsman’s office isn’t a large operation, consisting only of Kaufman and Robert Martin and operating on a budget of less than $1 million. It takes guts to work there, excavating laziness, shoddy work, political deal-making and agency cover-ups. Martin and Kaufman have been the targets of fierce abuse, mainly from corporate chieftains and EPA managers.

But even with its meager tools, the EPA’s National Ombudsman’s office has been tremendously effective. In 1998, it began poking into allegations of mismanagement at the Industrial Excess Landfill, a major Superfund site in Lake Township, Ohio. The investigation infuriated EPA head Carol Browner, who issued a directive preventing the office from looking further into the problems, which included allegations of botched testing and conflicts of interest. Ultimately, public outcry forced Browner to overturn her earlier decision.

Then in 1999 Martin and Kaufman began investigating the EPA’s plan to deal with radioactive waste at the Shattuck Chemical Company in Denver by using the “mound-and-cap” method. This consists of piling up a half-million cubic yards of radioactive waste and then sealing it with a clay cap. In the Shattuck case, the materials were to be left in the middle of the Overland Park section of Denver, a working class neighborhood. The ombudsman’s office probe concluded the plan was faulty and dangerous and that EPA officials in the Denver had been “bullied” into approving it by the chemical company’s executives.

As a result of Kaufman and Martin’s efforts, EPA reversed its early decision and is now hauling the contaminated soil to a hazardous waste disposal site. EPA managers were angered by the repudiation and sought to strike back by calling for a secret review of the Ombudsman’s office, aimed at curtailing its powers.

“It’s fairly clear why the office of the EPA’s national ombudsman has come under constant attack by EPA top management,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the DC-based Project on Government Oversight: “It’s because the ombudsman has been effective in doing exactly what an ombudsman is supposed to do—investigate complaints of inadequacies in the EPA’s handling of Superfund sites and to suggest remedies to the problems it finds. Rather than allowing the ombudsman to complete its work, the EPA is trying to revise the procedures governing the ombudsman program.”

It’s not easy being green, especially when your assignment is to root out corruption inside a supposedly green agency. Kaufman developed a thick skin and an aggressive approach that earned him plenty of enemies in high places. An example of the unsparing Kaufman style. In June, he held a hearing on the EPA’s plans to cap mounds of radioactive and toxic waste at a closed phosphorous plant in Tarpon Springs, Florida. When two EPA officials stepped to the microphone to deliver their testimony, Kaufman gave the bureaucrats the equivalent of a Miranda warning, saying anything they said might be used against them in court. A few weeks later, the EPA backtracked from its initial plan and has now agreed to remove the waste from the site.

The move against Kaufman outraged two Republicans, Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado and Rep. Mike Bilirakis of Florida who have worked with the ombudsman’s office to prod the agency to reassess its cleanup plans in Denver and Tarpon Springs.

“I think that Kaufman was sort of a burr under the saddle for the EPA and they wanted to get rid of him because he made them look bad, because they weren’t doing their job,” Allard said. “I think it’s vindictive. I’ve known some nasty things to come out of this administration, but this has got to be one of the worst.” In response to the EPA’s attempts to neuter its ombudsman, Sen. Allard has authored legislation to protect the EPA’s ombudsman’s office from political interference.”

This is not the first time an EPA administrator has gone after Kaufman. In Reagantime, Kaufman was put under surveillance by EPA head Anne Burford, after he publicly criticized how she and her sidekick Rita LaVelle had mishandled Superfund cleanup accounts. LaVelle later went to jail, thanks in part to Kaufman’s exposés. Here’s how Peter Montague at Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly described the Burford caper: “Burford set out to get Kaufman. She had him tailed to a motel where he was photographed entering a roomwith an unknown woman. A gleeful Ms. Burford thought she had the goods to ruin Kaufman’s career—to discredit him and perhaps even get him fired. Turned out the unknown woman was Kaufman’s wife. And it was Burford who ultimately got fired as Kaufman turned the tables and left her twisting in the wind.”

Then, in 1992, near the end of the administration of Bush Sr, Kaufman came under attack once again, when EPA administration William K. Reilly tried to prevent Kaufman and his associate William Sanjour from traveling outside of Washington, DC to meet with local communities and environmental organizers. Reilly had a personal axe to grind with Kaufman. Kaufman had exposed Reilly’s cozy relationship with Dean Buntrock, then head of Waste Management. Once again the heavy-handed tactics backfired. “Hugh’s got the determination of a shark,” said a colleague.

But as has been the case so often over the past eight years, it finally took the Clinton crowd to accomplish what the Reagan and Bush crowd had tried but failed to pull off: put the lid on one of the most effective environmentalists in the nation.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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