Effort to kill bill is decried

`Backroom' teamwork on `four-pollutants' measure is criticized

December 20, 2005|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

Environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers yesterday decried what some called "backroom" teamwork between the Ehrlich administration and the power industry to kill a bill intended to reduce Maryland's chronic air pollution.

The Sun reported Sunday that the Maryland Department of the Environment worked closely with Constellation Energy last spring to defeat the "four-pollutants" bill, which would have forced Constellation to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on emission-control equipment. Two MDE officials who led the lobbying effort used to work for Constellation.

"It's disappointing to see the regulated community having such influence over the regulators," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "The citizens of Maryland expect more objectivity from a state agency."

As part of the lobbying effort, Environment Secretary Kendl Philbrick signed a letter opposing the bill that was e-mailed from Constellation's lobbyist to MDE and then sent, on state agency letterhead, to an influential senator, state records show.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network sent e-mails yesterday to rally supporters to a protest at the State House tomorrow over the "governor's close ties to polluters."

"We are calling on both Constellation and the governor to stop these backroom deals to block positive environmental legislation," said Josh Tulkin, organizing director of the group, based in Takoma Park.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat who is a member of the House Environmental Matters Committee, predicted that a furor over Philbrick's letter would help to get a version of the four-pollutants bill passed in the coming General Assembly session.

"This is just appalling," Bobo said of the cooperation between Constellation and the MDE. "The Department of the Environment is supposed to have its own trained specialists who are looking out for the health and welfare of the public of Maryland. This is absolutely not acceptable."

But Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the governor has a strong environmental record, and he discounted the criticisms as politically motivated.

"These are far-left, highly political organizations and lawmakers who are more concerned with politics than telling the truth about the governor's environmental successes," Fawell said. "They will never admit that Governor Ehrlich solved the Chesapeake Bay's water-quality problems when everybody else in Annapolis was afraid to," Fawell said, referring to the "flush tax" sponsored by the administration to improve sewage treatment plants.

The four-pollutants bill would have required the state's seven largest coal-fired power plants, three owned by Constellation, to spend more than $2 billion to add filtration equipment to reduce their mercury air pollution by 90 percent by 2011. Three other pollutants would have to be reduced by lesser amounts.

Two of the top four officials appointed by the administration to run the Environment Department used to work for Constellation Energy. One is Deputy Secretary Jonas Jacobson, who was formerly Constellation's lobbyist and led the state's fight against the four-pollutants bill. Another is Stephen Pattison, assistant secretary for policy, who was an environmental compliance manager for Constellation.

A third official, MDE legislative liaison Victoria Schade, was a Constellation corporate contributions coordinator. She lobbied against the bill while holding Constellation stock in a mutual fund that would be worth more than $50,000 today, state records show.

Two sponsors of the bill, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky and Del. James W. Hubbard, both Prince George's Democrats, criticized such stock ownership as a conflict of interest.

In Sunday's article, Philbrick defended such stock ownership as ethical. After reading that report, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. called Philbrick yesterday and suggested that he seek an opinion from the State Ethics Commission on the stock ownership, said Curran spokesman Kevin Enright.

Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the MDE, said yesterday that Philbrick will write a letter to the ethics commission asking for guidance on the question of stock ownership. "We have an absolute commitment to good government here, and we are using caution," McIntire said.

State law prohibits officials from owning a financial interest in "an entity subject to the authority of that official ... or of the governmental unit with which the official or employee is affiliated." Violations are a civil matter, punishable by fines of up to $5,000 and termination of employment.

MDE e-mail showed that Mitch McCalmon, the agency's deputy director of waste management, who owns stock in Constellation, told colleagues he planned to meet with the chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee about the four-pollutants bill and was offered "talking points" on how to lobby against it.

McCalmon said yesterday that he decided against lobbying the committee chairman, Del. Dereck E. Davis, and met with him briefly only to say he was not going to get involved in the issue. "I didn't want to breach any ethics rules," McCalmon said.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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