Behind closed doors 

A Crisis of Conscience

Whistle blower's resignation sparks investigation of Montana's environmental protection agency

The chaos in Cathy Siegner's living room just before Christmas reflects a great deal of the turmoil in her professional life at the moment. Scattered among half-wrapped presents are files which she digs through and sets on the dining room table to illustrate her points. Until recently the communications manager for Montana's Department of Environmental Quality, the petite red-head's latest vocation might best be described as troublemaker.

Siegner says that her former bosses who run the DEQ routinely delay the release of public information and documents. On her watch, she says, they evaded reporters and seemed to answer first to the industries they regulate, and only second to the law and the citizens of Montana.

Until last fall, it was Siegner's job to act as a liaison between the DEQ and journalists concerned with the state's environmental politics. And according to many, she was good at her job -- some might say too good. In November, Siegner -- who walked point on a host of issues for the Racicot administration -- stepped down with a fiery resignation letter.

"Conditions in the department have made it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to effectively do my job of trying to enhance the level of trust and confidence the public and press hold in its activities," Siegner writes in the Nov. 12, 1997, missive addressed to DEQ Director Mark Simonich. "I refer to the appalling degree of spin-doctoring and truth-twisting being performed by you and [Deputy Director] Curt Chisholm on department issues in the press.

"I will not stand by on the state payroll and watch you stretch the truth in order to further some agenda that is neither publicly discussed nor collectively supported."

The accusations, which have been given short shrift by DEQ management, prompted Gov. Marc Racicot to undertake a investigation of the agency; but it remains to be seen whether the reverberations from Siegner's complaints will initiate any changes in how the DEQ does business.

The DEQ was cobbled together by legislators in 1995 out of pieces and parts from three other state agencies. Its mission statement echoes the state constitution, pledging to "protect, sustain, and improve a clean and healthful environment to benefit present and future generations."

The DEQ resides at the center of many of the state's environmental maelstroms: the Seven Up Pete Joint Venture's cyanide-heap leach gold mine proposal for the Blackfoot River, cleanup plans for the 120-mile long river of toxic mine tailings stretching from Butte to the Milltown Dam, and ASARCO's hopes to dig copper and silver out from under the Cabinet Wilderness. But the current controversy goes beyond conservation concerns, touching the heart of agency's public loyalties.

Immediately following the release of Siegner's letter, Simonich and Chisholm categorically denied her accusations, calling them "surprising." Racicot announced two days later that he would conduct an investigation; since then both DEQ officials have sworn to keep silent on the matter, pending Racicot's report.

"It's just a personal preference," Simonich told the Independent last week. "I'm under investigation by the governor and I don't think it would be prudent to talk about it until he's done."

The governor is not the only state official asking some tough questions these days. While Racicot is the agency's ultimate boss, the Montana Legislature also has oversight authority. Its Environmental Quality Council recently called Simonich on the carpet to answer for the DEQ's actions.

While Simonich is scheduled to talk with the council in Helena this Friday morning, he has vowed to put them off on Siegner's allegations as well if the governor hasn't concluded his investigation. "They're not going to like it any better than you are," he told this reporter, "but that's all I can do."

Several people Siegner identified as her potential supporters told the Independent that they agree with her version of the facts, but they were unwilling to support her conclusions.

Siegner's obviously antsy to be vindicated. After all, she's given up a $36,000-a-year job to stand up for her principles. But regardless of the outcome, the straight-shooting 46-year-old remains convinced that she's done the right thing. "The point is, they don't trust their own staff. That's why I left. How am I going to do what this says I'm supposed to do," she asks, pointing to her job description, "when I'm not privy to public information?"

Meanwhile, the governor has taken nearly two months to follow up with the sources named in a six-page memo Siegner wrote after she had resigned. Racicot reportedly tracked down one Helena reporter on vacation on the East Coast, and called others at home.

Some speculate that the end is near, as the governor plans to address members of the quality council Thursday night, and may release the results of his investigation at that time.

n Missoula, where the rallying of green voices often drowns out more reasonable conversations, even county health officials have taken Racicot's agents to task for lack of backbone. The health department sued the state a few years back over the permit for Stone Container's smokestacks. Self-proclaimed defenders of the Clark Fork have raised repeated concerns about Milltown Dam, as well as the overly-accommodating position they say the DEQ has taken on the Blackfoot mine.

The DEQ is in charge of enforcing the state's environmental laws, and Simonich says they do so fairly. Whether you agree depends on what side of the regulatory fence you find yourself on. From Siegner's position, the results look suspicious.

"It seems philosophical," she says. "They seem to have a mandate and I don't know what it is. I'm not privy to what [Mark Simonich] has been told by his boss."

For people like Missoula attorney Tom France, who works for the National Wildlife Federation, the DEQ has appeared in practice to give preferences to industry over the law and the public's interest.

France has gone head-to-head with DEQ lawyers in court over four or five cases since the agency came into existence two and a half years ago. He's challenged the DEQ's permitting process for the McDonald Project and its approval of pump tests for the proposed gold mine.

"I've interacted with the DEQ for years," he says, "before it even was the DEQ. I don't know Cathy Siegner, I've never met her. But her charges and concerns struck me as being similar to my experience with the agency.

"If I had to level one sort of pointed attack, it's that they don't do rulemaking," France says. "Time and again, they seem to make positions up to deal with specific instances. On a day-to-day basis, they seem to do whatever industry needs done to move forward through the larger regulatory process. They're given to expediency."

As an example, France refers to an amendment to the Metal Mine Reclamation Act passed by the 1995 legislature, requiring that mines clean up after they're done digging "to the extent feasible."

"That's a fairly elastic term that cries out for definition, but they've never done a rulemaking on it," he says. Instead, the agency interprets the phrase differently for each project. "If they did rulemaking on what feasibility means, presumably they'd come out with a regulation that the public participated in, had ownership and understanding of. We'd have a standard for treating all mining companies equally."

Rep. Vicki Cocciarella (D-Missoula) likens administrative rules to recipes. Cocchiarella, the House minority leader and co-chair of the Environmental Quality Council, says rulemaking is how regulatory power is really brokered. "As far as public participation, it's as important as during the legislative process," she says. "But it's not as visible, not as understood."

Rules are the meat of public policy, she says, and the rulemaking authority vested in state agencies concentrates vast amount of power in the hands of appointed -- not elected -- officials. "I guess a law, when written and passed, is kind of like cooking. You intend to fix a pot roast dinner," she says. "If the rules aren't written, the pot roast can come out as vegetable stew."

The thick green binders comprising the Administrative Rules of Montana lay out in painstaking detail the guts of public policy, and DEQ employees look to them whether they need to know the criteria for determining if a mine or mill has been abandoned or to research the 25-part complaint procedure for blasting operations. The obscure process by which rules are made -- in Helena during the off-season, far from the limelight of the legislature -- gives corporations a strategic advantage, Cocchiarella says.

"It's true for all rulemaking," she says. "Whoever has the money to pay a lobbyist year round, to follow and keep track of the process, to hire an attorney to write and respond -- that's who has the greater influence."

Siegner is hesitant to say that the DEQ purposely pays more attention to the concerns of the industries it is supposed to regulate than to those of Montana citizens, though she says that Simonich's background in the timber industry gives him a bias.

"Industry people are around really frequently, as opposed to members of the public or other organizations," she says. "But that's not necessarily anyone's fault if the Northern Plains Resource Council doesn't have the time or staff that Canyon Resources does."

Simonich is forthcoming about having worked for 15 years as a forester for the timber industry before getting hired on as a legislative assistant to Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in 1988, and his resumé provides an easy target for Siegner, France, and others to point at when they claim he has a bias.

Yet Simonich denies that his agency does anything other than strive to follow the law. With the complicated, and often emotionally-charged deals the DEQ has to broker, he says it's no surprise that environmentalists accuse him of being overly industry-friendly.

"Take a gravel pit -- there's one proposed for Bigfork right now," he says. "A lot of people are complaining. But unfortunately, nothing in the statute lets me take a vote."

ournalism and public relations students are often tossed into the same classroom, partly in the hope that the ethics taught to future reporters will rub off on future spokespeople.

And it's not surprising then, that reporters maintain -- at least privately -- some disdain for PR people. After all, they are the ones who have given up pursuit of the truth in exchange for learning to spin the news.

But that's not how things are supposed to work in public agencies, Siegner says. "As I told Curt, the minute a piece of paper gets to the department, it's public information. It doesn't matter if you don't like it, if Seven Up Pete Joint Venture doesn't like it. The press wants it, we've got it."

And too many times, Siegner says, she felt she was being forced to betray those values.

Prominent in Siegner's memo to the governor are claims that DEQ officials are evasive with the press. Those reporters who want sensitive information, she says, are stalled, grilled or ignored. She names one in particular, Erin Billings a recent UM grad who now works for Lee Enterprises' state bureau, and who repeatedly tried to get an interview about the DEQ's plans for revisions to the Montana Environmental Policy Act.

When Billings continued to push for information, Siegner says, Chisholm directed her to send Billings to staff attorney John North for answers. "[I]t was unclear why it was suddenly so important that any media contact on this issue be restricted solely to John North...," she writes. "On further reflection, I believe it may have stemmed from a desire to keep internal disagreements about MEPA from being publicly discussed."

At the same time Billings was getting the cold shoulder, Siegner writes, Simonich attended a meeting of the wise-use group, the Western Environmental Trade Association, to discuss the very policy changes Billings was trying to get information on.

The implications of this are murky, Siegner says. "I could sit and speculate all day, but they didn't share anything with me and knew darn well a reporter wanted to do the story," she says. "It's a very big issue which most people in Montana have no knowledge of."

Billings, whose articles on the DEQ appear statewide in Lee newspapers (including the Missoulian), declines to comment on the issue, saying that to do so would compromise her ability to cover the agency. She agreed with Siegner's accounting of the facts, but declined to lend support to the allegation that officials were avoiding her.

"Generally, the account is pretty accurate as far as I'm concerned," she says. "I didn't find any glaring errors."

A former employee of the DEQ also supports Siegner's version of the facts. Jim Robinson, who left the DEQ last fall to work for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, says Siegner's accounting of events he was a party to is accurate; yet he is adamant that she made too much of an incident that occurred between him and Chisholm.

As project manager for the McDonald Project, Robinson was keenly interested in the long overdue Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the gold mine. When a schedule and budget for the EIS finally came out, it sat on Chisholm's desk rather than being forwarded to Robinson. He had to find out about it from someone in a different agency.

Siegner says this fact, plus a subsequent conversation she had with Chisholm, led her to believe that the DEQ deputy was withholding the information purposely from Robinson, to avoid having the press get at the documents.

Robinson says this is rubbish. "The issue is whether or not the withholding was intentional or the result of criss-crossed vacations, things languishing in in-out boxes," he says. "The contention that it was intentional doesn't make a lot of sense, because the information was already out there. The DNRC and Army Corps of Engineers had it as well. It was public information."

Another journalist -- one not named in the memo but referred to by Siegner in an interview -- was more forthcoming than Billings, though also declined to be quoted by name. DEQ's sins, according to this writer's experience, were of omission.

"When going in to talk to someone, I'd have to say, 'I have all these documents, what's going on?' and then they'd start answering my questions," the reporter says. "But unless I had those documents, I didn't feel that higher ups in the DEQ were willing to volunteer that information.

"Whether that's a crime, I don't know. A lot of people don't tell me stuff every day."

The reporter gives as an example last fall's resignation by Alan Czarnowsky, who worked for a subcontractor on the McDonald Project's Environmental Impact Statement. "I never talked with Alan, but I heard he resigned. I'm going, 'Hmmm... this is kind of interesting.' So I call up the DEQ and Chisholm pooh-poohs it, saying 'It's not a big deal, Czarnowsky just took his toys and went home.'

"The day after I talked to Chisholm, I found out Czarnowsky sent a resignation letter to the state, and that someone [in another department] had a copy. So I get a copy faxed to me -- it's a public document -- and he says some pretty negative stuff in it.

"I just thought it was less than forthcoming for Chisholm to talk with me about it and not say, 'Oh and by the way, there's a resignation letter that explains why he quit.' Afterwards, they were more talkative.

"But it's indicative of a climate where they're only going to tell reporters the bare minimum."

Siegner says the Czarnowsky incident is a classic example of the sort of thing that led her to quit. "The point is, when a reporter calls and asks what happened, the appropriate response is to say 'He quit'; you don't sit there and grill the reporter, saying 'How'd you know about that?'"

In fact, lately at least, the DEQ administrators are unusually accessible. The agency's receptionist puts calls through to both Simonich and Chisholm without asking for the caller's name. But once on the horn, both Chisholm and Simonich refuse to talk about the specific allegations leveled against them. They will, however, speak generally about their press and public relations.

Simonich is an easier interview than Chisholm, talking casually of the need for a strong public information officer who can help get the word out about the agency's environmental protection efforts. Yet as the anonymous reporter above observed, answers have to be pulled out of the deputy director; he questions the premise of nearly every query put to him.

"I haven't heard a lot of complaints," Chisholm finally says of his rapport with the press. "We need to make sure we're reasonably open and accessible, that when the press makes an inquiry, they get what they're after."

When pushed, Chisholm admits that the DEQ could probably have better relations both with the press and the public. "Sure, there's room for improvement," Chisholm says. "Better public notice that certain things are going to happen, but it gets expensive. We're talking about doing paid advertisements versus legal notices in order to make sure they get read.

"More advance notice on big ticket things, briefing info written from a layman's perspective, because unless you're deeply involved, things like water quality nondegradation rules made no sense. You've got to make a translation, elaborate on the impacts, the practical effects of that rule. We're working on these kinds of things."

It is, perhaps, the one point on which Siegner agrees with Chisholm. "Often we need to educate people on what the law is. It's incumbent upon the agency to explain what scoping is, what MEPA is, so that people can participate meaningfully," she says.

The day before Racicot is scheduled to speak to the Environmental Quality Council, Siegner says she is not confident the governor will shake things up at the agency. "I've talked to legislators who say they've never known the governor to accept blame or admit fault, and that he always supports his family, his appointees.

"I'm not optimistic about the governor. He's going to support his guy. I don't expect any substantive changes."

For her part, Siegner says she's finished in government. She might return to journalism, or maybe something else. But her current path was inevitable. "Am I glad I resigned? I didn't have any choice. Everyone has a certain limit of how much they can take and I exceeded mine."

Photos by Jeff Powers

Curt Chisholm, deputy director at the DEQ, says the department has a good relationship with the press.

DEQ Director Mark Simonich

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