Democratic legislators Wednesday called for the state Legislature's natural resource committees to investigate the actions of the state Department of Natural Resources in its handling of an enforcement case against an Oconomowoc waste hauler.
The request comes in the wake of a Wisconsin State Journal story that showed a top political appointee at the agency saw to it that Richard Herr, owner of Herr Environmental Inc., was not prosecuted by the Justice Department for submitting inaccurate records and spreading waste in excess of legal limits.
Instead, DNR executive assistant Scott Gunderson approved five citations and a minimum fine against Herr. Gunderson, while serving as a Republican state representative, had received $750 in campaign contributions from Herr.
"This is not about politics," said state Rep. Louis Molepske, D-Stevens Point. "This is about innocent families whose private wells may have been significantly contaminated thereby exposing particularly those with decreased immune functions to E. coli, increased nitrate levels and other serious health impairments."
In requesting Justice Department prosecution of Herr, DNR enforcement staff cited potential health impacts as a major concern, with more than 40 private wells near the fields on which the company was cited for excessive spreading of waste.
Molepske was one of 12 legislators who signed a letter seeking the inquiry. The request to investigate the DNR actions went to state Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, and state Rep. Jeffrey Mursau, R-Crivitz, both chairmen of the natural resource committees in their respective houses.
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State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, who also signed on to the request, said that if Kedzie and Mursau refuse to convene oversight hearings, Democrats on the committees will conduct their own review and call on DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp to explain the agency's handling of the case. Hulsey said the legislators asked for a response from Kedzie and Mursau by Monday.
William Cosh, a DNR spokesman, said that "any such hearings would be a waste of time."
Cosh said the agency "proactively" contacted the Government Accountability Board about potential ethics violations in the case.
Jonathan Becker, GAB administrator, said Gunderson did not violate ethics rules because he is no longer a legislator.
Becker, however, said the Wisconsin State Journal stories appropriately raised questions about political favoritism. "It sounds like people here may have been exerting political influence," Becker told the State Journal. "But, however one may feel about that, it is not against the law."
Becker was contacted by the agency after the State Journal raised the issue of the Gunderson campaign contributions, months after the Herr case had been settled.