When state Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Hassett resigned suddenly in the summer of 2007, Gov. Jim Doyle's office announced Hassett was leaving to "write, travel and consult on environmental and regulatory issues."
Privately, however, Hassett told a different story: That Doyle, a fellow Democrat, forced him out of the top spot at the DNR because of the agency's insistence that the state clean up UW-Madison's coal-burning Charter Street heating plant - a move now expected to cost Wisconsin more than $200 million.
Hassett told at least two former top DNR officials that he was forced to resign and one of the reasons was the Charter Street enforcement action - which pitted two state agencies against each another in a conflict that hit close to the governor's office.
"There was no doubt in my mind that (Hassett) was forced out," said George Meyer, DNR secretary from 1993 to 2001, recounting a conversation he had with Hassett at Hassett's Lake Mills-area home in March. Meyer said Hassett said he believed the enforcement action against the plant was a key reason for his ouster.
Tom Thoresen, retired deputy chief conservation warden for the DNR, said Hassett told him a similar story during a phone conversation this month.
Thoresen said he called Hassett to thank him for helping push for a bill that would take away the power of the governor to appoint the DNR secretary and return that authority to the Natural Resources Board. Four former DNR secretaries, including Hassett and Meyer, signed a letter last month backing Assembly Bill 138.
"I did talk to Scott Hassett ... thanking him for his signing on to the DNR letter to legislators," Thoresen said. "Scott told me that yes, Charter Street was part of the reason for his being let go."
Doyle spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner declined to answer directly whether Hassett, and his deputy, Mary Schlaefer, were forced out. He pointed to a July 20, 2007, news release that implied Hassett was resigning because of overwork after four and a half years on the job.
"Anyone who claims that Charter Street is the reason for Scott Hassett's departure is a liar," Sensenbrenner said in a statement.
In a telephone interview, Hassett declined to talk about the reasons for his resignation from the department, which he led from 2003 until 2007. Hassett, a Democratic candidate for attorney general in 2010, said he saw no value in "rehashing" his departure.
Schlaefer also abruptly resigned at the same time as Hassett. In an interview, Schlaefer confirmed she was asked to step aside to make way for a deputy to serve the new secretary, Matt Frank. She said replacing the deputy when the secretary leaves is "not unusual."
Schlaefer was the lead official on enforcement issues at DNR, including Charter Street. She declined to comment on the circumstances of Hassett's resignation, saying she didn't want to speculate. Schlaefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corp., now serves as Hassett's campaign treasurer.
Meyer credited Hassett's "courage and integrity" in pursuing the Charter Street enforcement. Meyer and several other cabinet secretaries were removed when Republican Gov. Scott McCallum took office in 2001 after Gov. Tommy Thompson was named U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services.
"The governor has a right to hire and fire," Meyer said. "But if it's for carrying out the law and the policies set out by the Legislature ... that is wrong."
Bill gives board authority
Meyer, who runs the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, is part of a broad coalition of environmental and sportsmen's groups supporting AB 138, which would return control over secretary appointments to the seven-member Natural Resources Board. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, passed the state Assembly and was approved by a Senate committee 5-2 on Thursday. Doyle opposes the measure.
Proponents of the bill, which would reinstate a system abolished in 1995, say board appointments help insulate the secretary from political pressure that could run counter to good environmental and land-management policies.
Opponents say a DNR secretary who reports directly to the governor is more accountable to the public and more likely to balance agency priorities with the concerns of businesses and landowners. Some of the state's largest business groups have come out against the bill, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
A recent Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis showed donors from groups lobbying against the DNR secretary bill have contributed more than $4.14 million to Doyle since 2003 - compared to $17,175 from members of groups supporting the bill.
Accountability or politics?
As attorney general, Doyle favored a Natural Resources Board-run agency but since has changed his mind. Sensenbrenner said the governor has seen both systems in action and now believes an agency whose boss answers to the governor is more effective.
"It's very clear that the DNR works better, is stronger and more effective when the secretary is appointed by the governor," Sensenbrenner said, noting the governor has been successful in pushing significant legislation such as the Great Lakes compact.
But Rick Prosise, who retired as the DNR's chief legal counsel 10 months ago, said he believes politics has become an overriding factor in decision-making at the agency, where he worked with all seven DNR secretaries during his 35-year tenure. Prosise said he's seen veteran DNR staff demoted and key positions left unfilled to make way for Doyle appointees with little natural resources experience.
"Politics has totally shut down the DNR for anything but political purposes," Prosise said. "The only decisions that get made at DNR are the ones the governor wants made."
Plant issue a 'big black eye' for state
At the time Hassett left, DNR officials were making moves to force the state to install costly upgrades to reduce air pollution at Charter Street, which provides steam, electricity, chilled water and compressed air to buildings on the UW-Madison campus.
The state Department of Administration, which is responsible for the construction of state-owned buildings, made five major modifications to the plant without getting permits required under federal law and enforced by the DNR. The $2.8 million in improvements should have triggered permits that would've required installation of pollution-control equipment to bring the 50-year-old plant into compliance with federal clean air standards.
Tim Coughlin, a retired DNR enforcement specialist who worked on the Charter case, confirmed there was a lot of tension between his former agency and other officials in the Doyle administration.
"What happened here is (DOA) broke the law, and they put the state in a pretty unfortunate situation," Coughlin said. DOA officials "knew the state would get a big black eye over this."
In the end, 'a good result'
The Sierra Club was working on those same issues since 2006. Frustrated with the pace of the DNR's enforcement, the environmental group filed a federal lawsuit against the state in May 2007. In November of that year, U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled the state violated the Clean Air Act by not getting required permits for the modifications, which "resulted in significant increases in net emissions."
State officials reached an agreement with the Sierra Club to cut coal use by 15 percent at the plant beginning in 2008 and to convert it to burn biomass by 2013 - a conversion expected to cost $251 million.
"The governor has been the greatest champion of moving Charter Street off coal, a tremendous result that didn't require one state agency suing another at taxpayer expense," Sensenbrenner said.
The governor's decision to build a biomass boiler that will operate at Charter Street goes beyond any of the required standards, and was widely praised and supported by environmentalists and members of the community."
Under the agreement, DOA also has evaluated 12 other state-owned, coal-burning power plants and determined the Capitol plant in Madison, and possibly one other, will need upgrades.
"It was a rough ride getting there, but it was a good result," said Jennifer Feyerherm, director of the Sierra Club's Wisconsin Clean Energy Campaign.