Slinging sludge

It looks as if the head of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality got caught spreading some toxic misinformation about one of the agency’s premier critics.

At least twice during the month of February, DEQ Director Russ Harding stated that the founder of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) had been fired from a government job after committing criminal activity.

It is understandable why Harding would have an ax to grind with PEER. Last year, using information provided by multiple anonymous sources from within the DEQ, the group published a devastating report revealing the degree to which the state’s wetlands policies are being swayed by developer interests.

At a Feb. 9 Michigan Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs hearing, Harding responded to a question about the PEER report by saying, in part: " … I think there’s some fair criticism, although I’d say the PEER group, you should probably examine where that comes from. Actually, the founder of that group is a fired employee from, er, for theft or embezzlement or something from the Forest Service. … But, having said that, I think there’s some legitimacy to the criticism. …"

Harding was referring to PEER founder Jeff DeBonis, who, after receiving an audiotape of the comments from a DEQ tipster, informed the director that the allegations were completely false.

"Your statement about me could not be further from the truth," responded DeBonis in a Feb. 17 letter to Harding. DeBonis goes on to write that he formed PEER after his experience as a Forest Service whistleblower who refused to follow orders to disobey federal law. He quit to devote his time to the watchdog group.

A second source notified PEER that Harding made similar allegations against DeBonis at a Feb. 23 public hearing.

On Feb. 26, Harding wrote DeBonis saying, "My comments concerning your background were prompted by statements made to me by other parties, whose credibility I had no reason to question. To the extent that these statements are not accurate, I regret any distress they may have caused you."

"It was sort of a backhanded apology," says PEER’s Rob Perks, who notes that Harding went on to inform DeBonis that the DEQ "is committed to the principles of fairness, accuracy and integrity, particularly with respect to public discussion of environmental policy making. I encourage your organization to strive for those same standards so that the issues critical to Michigan’s environment are not distorted or politicized."

According to Perks, DeBonis is considering legal action.

DEQ spokesperson Ken Silfven confirms that the statements were made, and that he will urge Harding to write letters to all those participating at the meetings to correct the misinformation.

"There was no intention to harm Mr. DeBonis," says Silfven.

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