Politicians are often accused of "putting the fox in charge of the henhouse," of giving someone with a vested interest in an issue control over how that issue is resolved.
A good example is a president, such as Barack Obama, who appoints people from Wall Street to enforce federal regulations intended to crack down on illegal behavior by Wall Street’s investment community. Needless to say, you’re not likely to get vigorous enforcement in that situation.
We have a similar situation with Gov. Sonny Perdue and environmental regulations in Georgia. Over the past month, the professional who was in charge of enforcing those rules has quit and Perdue has put people in charge who could benefit from the relaxation of environmental laws.
The governor has put a whole pack of foxes in the henhouse, and before long there may not be any hens left.
Just over two weeks ago, Carol Couch very abruptly resigned as director of the Environmental Protection Division, giving one week’s notice that she was vacating her office. Perdue moved quickly in announcing that Couch’s replacement would be Allen Barnes, an Atlanta attorney.
Couch was a scientist with years of experience in water quality and related environmental issues. Although Barnes did work for a couple of years as a bureaucrat with the federal Environmental Protection Agency during the George W. Bush administration, his education and primary work experience is in the legal profession.
Barnes isn’t just any lawyer, either. He was a partner with King & Spalding, a top-dollar firm that represents clients whose bottom line depends on getting favorable decisions on environmental permits. These clients include some of the interests who want to operate a controversial coal-fired power plant in Washington County. King & Spalding also provides services for clients involved in the tri-state proceedings over the allocation of water from Lake Lanier.
"It’s the first time they’ve ever put the polluters’ lawyers in charge of the EPD," observed Mark Woodall of the Sierra Club.
Perdue made sure Barnes has some support when these sensitive environmental permits come to his attention. Three weeks before installing Barnes as EPD director, Perdue appointed another King & Spalding partner, Dwight Davis, to the state Board of Natural Resources.
Yet another King & Spalding lawyer, Paul Clement, will take over some of the state’s legal representation in the court appeals involving Lake Lanier’s water usage.
It’s part of a pattern for the governor. Over the past few years, environmental activists such as Pierre Howard and Jim Butler have been removed from the Board of Natural Resources while developers and resource extractors have assumed more control.
"To have balance you have to have other voices, and those voices just aren’t there," said an attorney involved in the court battles over air quality permits. "There’s no way in hell coal plant permits are going to be denied."
After the natural resources board confirmed his appointment as EPD director, I asked Barnes if he saw any potential conflicts of interest stemming from the connections between his old law firm and its clients who will ask Barnes’ agency for pollution permits.
"I really don’t," he replied.
Just to be sure, I asked, will you abstain from any decisions involving environmental permits for King & Spalding clients? He said he would "go through a very thoughtful and deliberative process" with the agency’s attorney about that.
Here’s something else to keep in mind. Barnes will be paid a salary of $155,000 a year as EPD director. At King & Spalding, he was working for a very wealthy law firm that reported profits per partner of nearly $1.4 million in 2007.
Why would someone agree to a state job where his compensation is just a fraction of what it could have been with his former employer?
Perdue sees nothing to worry about.
"His impressive government and academic background ensures he will successfully lead EPD as they continue to be responsible stewards of our most precious natural resources," Perdue said in announcing Barnes’ appointment.
Maybe Perdue is correct in assuming that an Atlanta law firm representing some of the state’s biggest corporate interests can resolve Georgia’s pressing environmental issues. But if you want to have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, you have reason to be worried.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers Georgia politics and government.