Saying he is troubled by a report that a former top Virginia environmental official has been hired by attorneys for one of the state's biggest corporate polluters, Gov. George Allen today ordered the Department of Environmental Quality to end all contact with the law firm and the company.
In a letter, Allen told DEQ Director Thomas L. Hopkins that he and his employees should not have any communication with the ex-official, Michael McKenna. The company and the federal government are being sued by the state for $1.5 million in cleanup costs at the Avtex Fibers plant in Front Royal.
McKenna "potentially could be acting in a position adverse to his former employer -- the taxpayers of Virginia. Given this potential problem, any direct communication would be professionally irresponsible on the part of both parties," wrote Allen, a Republican.
In the future, Allen said, all communication with Avtex's former owner, FMC Corp., should go through the attorney general's office, which is representing the state in the suit. Allen also said he thought it "would be a good idea" for the state to outlaw such activity by ex-state officers.
Allen's move came after Democratic Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. and Democratic attorney general candidate William D. Dolan III called for tightening limits on "revolving door" lobbying by former state officials at their old agencies. Beyer, who is running for governor, also blasted his GOP rival, Attorney General James S. Gilmore III, for advising state officials that McKenna's work was not improper.
"It's a question of judgment. The attorney general should have advised his client -- the state -- not to have these conversations," Beyer said. "How could this kind of cozy arrangement possibly benefit the people of Virginia?"
McKenna, who was forced to resign Jan. 10 as policy director and spokesman for the DEQ, was hired shortly afterward by Baise & Miller, a Washington law firm. The firm was retained in March by FMC to help defend it against the suit.
Although a 1994 law bars former top state officials from lobbying their agencies for one year, it defines the practice as influencing legislation or gubernatorial orders. It exempts contacts about litigation, regulation, contracts and other government business.
Today, Gilmore spokesman Donald C. Harrison declined to discuss what advice the attorney general's office gave to T. March Bell, DEQ deputy director. He would not respond to Beyer's allegation. "Legal advice is confidential. If the client chooses to reveal what advice is given, that's the client's choice, but attorneys are not at liberty," Harrison said.
McKenna and Gary H. Baise, of Baise & Miller, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Caroline E. Oppleman, a spokeswoman for FMC, said the Chicago-based chemical and machinery company "is committed to acting as a responsible corporation and to conducting business in accordance with all applicable state rules and regulations."