New Michigan Environmental Chief Enters Through Reverse Revolving Door

(Photo: AP)

Governor Rick Snyder talks about plans for connecting the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron on June 21, 2016, in Flint, Michigan, in the aftermath of the city's drinking-water crisis.

When she read that Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder appointed a former oil company lobbyist as Michigan’s top environmental official, one Flint activist thought that she’d just read an article from The Onion, the online news satire website. But the story was not a joke. Snyder shocked environmentalists and Flint residents in July when he named Heidi Grether, a former executive for both Amoco Corporation and BP America, to head the state Department of Environmental Quality, one of the government agencies at the center of the Flint drinking-water crisis.

The move came at a tense time in Michigan, as state officials wrestle with the fallout from the Flint debacle and consider whether to decommission two pipelines that run through the Straits of Mackinac and carry oil from western to eastern Canada by way of the Great Lakes. The reverse revolving-door issues that arise when a corporate official becomes a government employee are as troubling as the ones that play out when a public-sector worker takes on a role in a private company. Environmental activists worry that Snyder’s decision to install Grether, who worked for BP for two decades and handled the company’s public relations during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, fuels perceptions that corporate interests will exert even more control over the state’s scarred regulatory agencies.

Grether appeared before a state Senate Natural Resources Committee on September 7 to answer questions about her plans for the department, while opponents were not given the opportunity to testify. The Senate panel of four Republicans and one Democrat did not take a vote on her nomination, so Grether’s move to the top slot becomes official next week. “Her expertise in delivering good customer service from a large organization will be of great value as we continue working to reinvent the department and act more proactively to address issues that arise,” Snyder noted in his July announcement about Grether.

Every state regulates government-to-corporate lobbying activities to varying degrees, and these comings and goings get plenty of scrutiny. The reverse revolving-door trend spotlights the flip side of that problem—former corporate executives move into agencies and grease the wheels for their former clients and colleagues. As a governor dipping into the private sector to staff his administration, Snyder is not an outlier.

Criticism rained down on Maine Republican Governor Paul LePage when he appointed Patricia Aho, a chemical industry lobbyist, to head the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2011. In 2013, the Portland Press Herald scrutinized Aho’s decision-making at the Maine DEP in a seven-month investigation that documented her frequent moves to scuttle regulations that conflicted with the governor’s pro-business argument that Maine’s economic problems stem from overregulation.

The Press Herald found that some of the state regulations that fell by the wayside were ones that that Aho had opposed when she was a lobbyist. As a government official, she also destabilized the state’s environmental regulatory regime by forcing out high-performing, longtime employees (some who were experts in their fields) and assigning them to menial positions in unrelated areas. Aho also presided over efforts to derail, or simply not enforce, other regulations: After LePage took office, no new chemicals were added to a 2008 law designed to protect young children from hazardous substances. “In both enforcement and in what we communicate to the Legislature, it almost seems like the commissioner is still a lobbyist for the clients she represented before she came to office,” one DEP employee told the newspaper. Aho stepped down in 2015 to take a constituent services position with Republican Senator Susan Collins’s district office in Augusta.

In 2009, Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich brought in Jerry Wray, a former asphalt industry executive and lobbyist, for a second tour of duty as the head of the Ohio Department of  Transportation. Wray helped take down a plan to build high-speed rail line between Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, along with a number of other mass-transit projects.

Republicans governors aren’t the only ones who have succumbed to the temptation to hire former industry chieftains. Last year, California Democratic Governor Jerry Brown hired an oil industry executive to work in the state’s oil regulatory agency. The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity criticized the appointment, noting that “Governor Brown’s administration has shown a blatant disregard for the law, and time after time it has sacrificed California’s water and public health in favor of oil industry profits. Hiring an oil executive to run one of the state’s most captured agencies is completely inappropriate and only adds insult to injury.” However, the oil company hire runs counter to the overall push-the-envelope environmentalism of his administration: This week, Brown signed the country’s most ambitious climate change–targeted legislation.

Meanwhile, in a press conference after her Senate committee testimony, Grether said that the environmental department would recover from the Flint crisis. “There are a lot of really great things that happen here,” she said. “We’ve not told our story well.”

Prioritizing image over the environment gets Grether off to a shaky start. “What is her experience in protecting the environment?” one commenter asked. “Who takes over a government agency charged with protecting people and the environment and managing natural resources and says the priorities are public relations? Insane.” But if Snyder had wanted to tap an environmental champion with sterling credentials, who would restore public confidence shaken by the Flint water crisis, he could have found one. Instead, he put another spin on the reverse revolving door. 

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