In a classic case of "shoot the messenger," state Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp is accusing the Wisconsin State Journal of "sensational" reporting on her agency's weak actions against a polluter in Jefferson County.
Stepp even claimed in an odd and conspiratorial press release on a Sunday night that the State Journal hadn't been fair in presenting her side of the story — after she declined several requests from our reporter for an interview. (Hint: Talking to the press is a good way to share your view).
Ron Seely's investigative report May 6 — "Did political ties influence case?" — documented concern within the DNR that a serious violation by Herr Environmental was being minimized, and that DNR executive assistant Scott Gunderson had received campaign contributions from the waste hauler in question back when Gunderson was a Republican state lawmaker.
Seely's article informed the public that DNR staff had recommended the Herr case be sent to the Justice Department for excessive dumping of human waste on farm fields near water wells — as much as three times in excess of its permit — and for terrible record keeping.
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Instead, Gunderson steered the case to local district attorneys for five citations and a fine of $4,338, the minimum forfeiture for the permit violations. This occurred even though the lead DNR investigator called the violations "among the worst" he'd seen.
Add in some context — that under Stepp's watch the DNR has experienced a dramatic drop in enforcement activity — and you don't have to be an investigative journalist to start asking questions. In fact, Stepp knows a lot about questioning the DNR. The former home builder was an outspoken critic of the DNR as a Republican state senator, before GOP Gov. Scott Walker picked her to run the agency less than two years ago.
Seely's article did include Gunderson's side of the story and other comments from DNR defenders. The DNR has gone overboard with enforcement at times in the past. And the DNR under Stepp has been smart to try to prevent violations through a less combative posture and better communication of expectations with key business sectors.
Yet because of its reach and elaborate responsibilities for environmental protection and management, the DNR will always be controversial and in need of scrutiny. That's true regardless of which political party happens to control the state Capitol.