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Enforcing Environmental Laws

Tuesday, June 26, 2001 at 8:13 AM

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A government lawyer from the Cleveland area is turning the tables on his employer - he's suing the U.S. Department of Justice. Assistant US Attorney Gregory Sasse claims the Justice Department discriminated against him as he tried to uphold Federal Environmental laws. His hearing is scheduled to begin later this morning. 90.3's Janet Babin has the story.

Janet Babin- Gregory Sasse is probably best known for prosecuting a former Cleveland Airport Director for environmental crimes more than a decade ago. He’s been employed with the Northeast Ohio US Attorney’s office since 1982, but for about the past ten years, Sasse says he’s been kept from prosecuting environmental criminals by the US Department of Justice. Sasse says the department has a policy of looking the other way when it comes to prosecuting environmental crimes, and discriminates against him when he tries to do so.

Gregory Sasse- I’ve been insulted, belittled, abused, I’ve been denied essential training.

JB- Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller says the Department of Justice can’t comment on cases in litigation. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1998 US attorneys prosecuted 235 environmental polluters nationwide, only 60% of the 580 such cases investigated that year. Justice officials claim that many environmental crimes aren’t prosecuted because of weak evidence.

Sasse’s attorney Steve Bell says the cases aren’t prosecuted because of a concerted effort to stifle environmental enforcement. Bell explains that the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have provisions in them that prohibit anyone upholding those laws from being discriminated against for doing so, and the laws give the US Department of Labor the obligation to investigate such claims, and bring them to trial

Steve Bell- From a legal perspective, no one’s ever tried to bring a whistle blower case under the Federal Statutes in question here, alleging they’ve been prevented from doing federal criminal prosecution. This shines light on the very heart of the environmental enforcement program in this country.

JB- There are at least two similar cases that have been filed by Department of Justice employees (one by an AUSA in Texas and another by an attorney in Washington D.C.) but Professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School says that Sasse’s case is unusual.

Jonathan Turley- For an individual Department of Justice lawyer to sue the department remains fairly uncommon. It certainly goes against the strong cultural grain within the department not to break ranks.

JB- During the hearing, Sasse expects to cite several examples of environmental cases he claims were ignored by his colleagues, one of them on NASA Glenn Research Center property that will be used by Cleveland Hopkins International Airport for runway expansion. Sasse says there’s a resistance to acknowledge a long list of contaminants NASA buried at the site over the years, such as…

GS- ...there are… buried here… exotic rocket fuels, radioactive waste…

JB- The area’s known as the “South 40,” a 40-acre plot south of NASA’s main campus at Lewis Field that borders the airport. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency first addressed the contamination in a July 1991 report, but ten years later, the site’s yet to be remediated. NASA Environmental Manager Michael Blotzer says NASA’s been studying the contamination there since 1988, but he denies that the problem is as bad as Sasse claims.

Blotzer says the contamination is a product of incomplete combustion, and is associated with an increased risk of cancer. He says once NASA learned that Cleveland wanted the property to build a runway, NASA did another risk assessment for construction workers exposure that was completed in April.

Michael Blotzer- We have identified two to three feet of soil in the South 40 that do pose a potential risk to people mucking around in the soil.

JB- Sasse makes additional claims about environmental contamination and violations at NASA that will likely come up this week during his hearing. A former NASA director of investigations and other former NASA employees are expected to testify. Sasse is seeking compensatory damages, attorney fees and other relief from the Department of Justice. In Cleveland, Janet Babin, 90.3 WCPN.

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