SACRAMENTO -- The state's ethics agency is investigating whether one of California's top environmental regulators violated conflict-of-interest laws by regulating companies in which she owns stock.
Officials at the Fair Political Practices Commission said Wednesday they have launched a formal probe into whether Odette Madriago, chief deputy director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, took improper regulatory actions affecting the operations of oil, chemical and manufacturing companies in which she has financial interests.
The toxics agency is responsible for managing the state's hazardous waste.
Gark Winuk, chief of enforcement for the FPPC, said the ethics inquiry was spurred by media reports and a complaint filed by Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based group that has accused the toxics agency of allowing polluters to operate on expired permits for years and of neglecting to revoke the permits of companies that repeatedly flouted environmental laws.
In its complaint, Consumer Watchdog cited disclosure forms showing Madriago has held between $10,001 and $100,000 in shares of Chevron and BP Amoco over the last six years, as well as between $100,001 and $1 million in shares of General Electric -- all companies the agency regulates.
The consumer group has charged that the toxics agency has abdicated its authority to regulate oil refineries in the wake of a massive explosion last year at a Chevron facility in Richmond. Tens of thousands of people in that city were advised to stay indoors to avoid sulfuric acid and nitrogen dioxide fumes, and about 200 residents sought medical help, complaining of respiratory problems.
In a statement, Tamma Adamek, a spokeswoman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said Madriago and the agency "will fully cooperate with the FPPC" in the ethics investigation.
In an open letter previously posted on the DTSC Web site, Debbie Raphael, the agency's director, said her department had conducted its own review of disclosure forms filled out by Madriago and another deputy, Stewart Black, head of the brownfields and environmental restoration division. That internal review found no wrongdoing, she said.
Still, Raphael said the agency was bolstering its rules and training.
"To prevent conflicts of interest in the future, we will be both updating our regulations and providing an additional mandatory training to supplement the standard ethics training employees already are required to take every two years," she wrote.
State lawmakers have called for a legislative investigation of the agency, after raising concerns about lax enforcement.
Battery recycling plant in Vernon ordered to cut emissions
Officials reviewing conflict-of-interest charges against 2 regulators
Probe of California agency that regulates hazardous waste is urged