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Governor is accused of bullying air panel

Schwarzenegger's top aides hindered efforts to curb pollution, former board members say.

July 07, 2007|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Democratic lawmakers charged the Schwarzenegger administration Friday with bullying the state's air board into softening enforcement of environmental laws, as two former top regulators testified that the governor's chief deputies routinely pressured them not to push ahead with policies that industry found objectionable.

At a hearing of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, the legislators attacked the aides at the center of the allegations, Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy and Cabinet Secretary Dan Dunmoyer, for refusing to testify. Committee Chairwoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) warned that she may try to force their appearance through subpoenas as her committee continues to investigate the implementation of California's landmark law to curb greenhouse gases.

The controversy at the state Air Resources Board, a regulatory body appointed by the governor but meant to work independently, has tarnished the governor's image as an environmental crusader and widened the rift between him and Democratic leaders over how to move forward in the effort to curb global warming.

"The pressure has been relentless, and it has all run one way," Catherine Witherspoon, a 22-year veteran of the board, told committee members. She said the administration's resistance to the board's efforts to curb global warming and improve air quality moved her to quit her post as executive director Monday. " 'Slow down. Do less. Go easier on industry.... ' Nothing was off-limits. We'd even get calls during our regulatory hearings with specific instructions on what to do."

She said administration officials went so far as to bar the board from making some of its own hiring decisions.

Witherspoon quit days after the governor fired the head of the board, Robert F. Sawyer. Sawyer provided the committee with a transcript of a voicemail from Dunmoyer directing him not to push the board to pass specific actions intended to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Sawyer also shared a letter he sent to Schwarzenegger after he was fired.

"Your staff has interjected itself in a manner that has compromised the independence and integrity of this board," the letter said. "Your staff does not have sufficient expertise or experience in, or understanding of, the science, technology, economics or legal aspects of air pollution control to direct the Air Resources Board in its work."

Sawyer's testimony also painted the picture of a governor who, despite relishing his international status as an environmental icon in speeches and media interviews, has been detached from the day-to-day work of cleaning up the environment. Sawyer, who ran the board for 18 months, said the governor did not once meet with him.

On Tuesday, Schwarzenegger personally introduced environmental lawyer Mary Nichols as Sawyer's replacement -- a move, given Nichols' past work for Democrats, that was meant to quell concerns about the direction of the governor's policies. Administration officials also spread the word that Sawyer was fired not for moving too quickly to enforce state laws but because he was not tough enough.

Dan Skopec, who left his job as a Cal/EPA undersecretary Friday to become a private consultant, called the meddling described by Witherspoon and Sawyer "fiction."

Skopec, who was testifying on behalf the administration, said it did not bully the board but merely tried to work together with it to coordinate implementation of the global warming bill, AB 32, as well as air quality laws.

"I don't think that coordination is inappropriate," he said. Skopec noted that some of the actions Sawyer and Witherspoon were endorsing were opposed by the air board's staff.

Democrats said Skopec was in no position to accuse Sawyer and Witherspoon of lying because he was not involved in the conversations between them and administration officials. They also grew angry when he refused to tell the committee who in the administration asked him to testify and what he talked about with those officials before the hearing.

"This is the stuff we have come to expect form the Bush-Cheney administration," Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) said.

No Republican legislators attended the hearing, leaving Skopec and Eileen Tutt, an assistant secretary at Cal/EPA who appeared along with him, little relief from the steady battering by 17 Democrats over the course of nearly four hours. GOP legislators opposed the global warming bill, and their frustration with that and other Schwarzenegger policies has made them reluctant to step up on the governor's behalf in recent months.

Schwarzenegger administration spokesman Adam Mendelsohn dismissed the hearing as "a political drill."

"This is a board appointed by the governor, and ultimately the administration is held accountable for whether it is successful or not," he said of the accusations of meddling. "It would be a disservice to the people of California if the administration were not working closely with the Air Resources Board."

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) accused the administration of stonewalling. He said sending Skopec to answer the charges leveled by Witherspoon and Sawyer was unacceptable, and he too suggested subpoenas of higher-ranking administration officials maybe forthcoming.

"I was hoping we could have one hearing on this issue, deal with what happened and move forward," he said. "At this point, I can't tell you that is the case."

Nunez also called for reinforcing the independence of the board by having members appointed by the governor for a fixed term, taking away the ability of administrations to fire board members at will.

He also proposed making all communication between administration officials and board members or staff public record.

Mendelsohn said the governor does not support either move. "It really is unfortunate that Air Resources Board is being politicized," Mendelsohn said.

--

evan.halper@latimes.com

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