The Florida Department of Environmental Protection's removal of four attorneys has raised question among environmentalists. Above is the agency's Tallahassee headquarters. File photo from DEP.
The removal of four Department of Environmental Protection attorneys this week is raising questions among some environmentalists after one attorney wrote that the DEP legal office is moving "not in the direction of environmental protection."
DEP spokesman Patrick Gillespie said new General Counsel Matthew Z. Leopold, who took over his role April 3, made the reductions because fewer attorneys are needed.
In terminating attorneys Christopher T. Byrd and Kelly L. Russell, Leopold wrote, "We believe the objectives of the office will be accomplished more effectively by removing you from your position."
Byrd, though, wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday night that the new general counsel "is moving in a 'new direction,' not in the direction of environmental protection, thanks (Gov.) Rick Scott."
Gillespie said the decision had nothing to do with reducing environmental protection. He provided figures showing the number of enforcement cases had dropped by half since 2008 as have the number of permit applications since 2006.
"These staffing decisions were made as Matt came in as a new manager and assessed his team and made decisions on who can best handle the legal issues within the Department," Gillespie wrote in an email. "As our compliance assistance numbers have increased, there have been fewer enforcement cases for attorneys to handle."
Contacted Thursday, Byrd said he could not discuss the situation until he has had time to meet with an attorney.
"I will tell you I was told by the new general counsel that he has been reassessing the resources in the Office of General Counsel and has decided to take the Office of General Counsel in a new direction, a new direction apparently I don't fit in," Byrd said.
He had been with the department since 2008 and had been a senior attorney since 2010. Russell had been with the department since 2001 but only had been hired on as a senior attorney in 2012.
The two attorneys who resigned were Teresa Mussetto, who had been with the department since 2003, and Christopher McGuire, who was with DEP since 1986. McGuire's letter said the resignation had been requested. Neither Russell, Mussetto nor McGuire could be reached for comment.
The Office of General Counsel has 71 employees, 41 of whom are attorneys, Gillespie said.
"These changes will not prevent the department from continuing its mission of protecting the environment," Gillespie wrote.
Byrd's comments, shared on various Facebook pages and forums, were met with bitter responses from some environmentalists who complained about the governor and DEP. One environmentalist asked whether the Highlands Ranch LLC case involving DEP wetlands expert Connie Bersok had anything to do with the removals.
An administrative law judge last month backed Bersok in her testimony, contradicting her bosses, in the case involving the permit application for Highlands Ranch wetlands mitigation bank in Clay County. DEP Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. is scheduled to issue a final order by June 17, but a department attorney has asked him to return the case for new hearing on disputed issues.
Gillespie said the reduction of the four attorneys positions had nothing to do with the Highlands Ranch case.
Reporter Bruce Ritchie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.