Prosecutor will turn her talents to defense Veteran lawyer joins private practice

December 05, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF


An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun noted that Jane F. Barrett, a former assistant U.S. attorney, had a small figure of a barracuda in her office. The figure was not given to her by a federal judge but by an FBI agent.

The "Barracuda" has bitten her last criminal. After 21 years of preying on polluters, poachers, con artists and wetlands despoilers, Jane F. Barrett leaves the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore today to swim on the other side.

Looking for a new challenge -- and extra income to finance her son's looming college education -- the veteran federal prosecutor is joining a Washington law firm. There, she intends to defend businesses and people facing fraud or environmental charges with the same aggressiveness she used to put them behind bars.

"It's been a nice ride," she said recently while packing up papers, law books and mementos in her cramped, cluttered office at the Edward A. Garmatz federal courthouse downtown. "I hope to do some preventive law -- keep people out of the courtroom."

That will be a switch. By her reckoning, Barrett, 45, has tried more environmental criminal cases than any other prosecutor in the country.

First as a lawyer for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, then as assistant Maryland attorney general, and finally as assistant U.S. attorney, Barrett established a nationwide reputation for her passionate pursuit of environmental and white-collar criminals.

Fresh out of University of Maryland Law School, she helped the fledgling EPA win one of its first criminal convictions -- involving a major chemical manufacturer, FMC Corp., accused of dumping toxic chemicals in a West Virginia river and contaminating the drinking water of three cities downstream.

More recently in Maryland, her targets have included a wealthy Wall Street financier and his foreman, a prominent real estate developer and a trio of high-ranking Pentagon officials -- all charged in separate cases with flouting environmental laws.

"She was tenacious," said Robert Percival, who teaches environmental law at the University of Maryland Law School. "She brought some of the most important early cases that showed that the criminal provisions of the environmental laws had teeth."

Straight to the top

By many accounts, her most significant case was the prosecution in 1989 of three civilian managers of the Army's chemical weapons research program for illegally disposing of hazardous waste at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

The charges rocked the federal bureaucracy, especially the Defense Department, which until then had considered itself exempt from adhering to federal environmental laws.

"It was the first time that [federal] senior executives had been charged," she recalled.

The problems took place at the proving ground's Pilot Plant, an aging brick building where toxic chemicals were dumped and spilled in the course of researching production of binary nerve gas weapons. Army officials denied state environmental inspectors access to the proving ground and the plant.

Bringing the case was difficult. Prosecutors agonized over whether to file criminal charges because there was no evidence that the government employees were violating the law to enrich themselves, as was often the case with private business executives accused of polluting. Some politicians also objected to publicly embarrassing the Pentagon.

"There was a lot of lobbying in Washington by muckety mucks to not bring the case," Barrett recalled. But she persevered, with her boss at the time, U.S. Attorney Breckenridge Willcox, taking the political flak for her.

"If we don't hold federal employees accountable," she said, "it's very difficult to hold anyone accountable.

"The fact we went after senior managers -- and not the lower-level guys who did the spilling and dumping -- sent shock waves through the military," she said. "It still does."

Since then, the Defense Department has poured billions of dollars into cleaning up pollution at military facilities nationwide. Recently, she said, a Marine Corps official telephoned seeking a videotape of her discussing the Aberdeen case for use in educating a new generation of military personnel to the importance of obeying environmental laws.

On Barrett's bookcase sits a plastic model of the USS Coral Sea, the historic aircraft carrier that figured in her last high-profile case. Kerry L. Ellis Sr., owner of Seawitch Salvage Inc., awaits sentencing for exposing his workers to hazardous asbestos and for polluting Baltimore's harbor during the carrier's scrapping. Barrett was lead prosecutor in the May jury trial.

Behind the ship model is a small mounted figure of a barracuda, the razor-toothed tropical fish with a reputation for attacking bathers. It was given to her in jest by one of the federal judges, but the nickname has since been applied by friend and foe alike.

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