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Congressional Oversight of Federal Environmental Prosecutions: The Trashing of Environmental Crimes

February 1994

Citation: 24 ELR 10074

Issue: 2

Author: William T. Hassler

Editors' Summary: Since late 1992, two congressional committees and an academic group working for a member of a third committee have issued reports severely criticizing the Environmental Crimes Section (ECS) of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The reports focus on alleged deep divisions among the three units of the federal government responsible for the prosecution of environmental crimes: the ECS, local U.S. Attorneys' Offices, and EPA's Office of Criminal Enforcement. They claim that the ECS lacks prosecutorial zeal and suffers from morale, management, and competency problems.

The author, a former attorney with the ECS and a former Associate Counsel on the staff of Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, argues that the reports are methodologically flawed and replete with factual errors. He charges that the congressional investigators conducted unbalanced factual inquiries, adopted unrealistic and inconsistent standards for evaluating prosecutorial decisions, and ignored protections traditionally afforded subjects of criminal investigations and indictments. The author notes that despite the reports' conclusions, DOJ prosecutions of environmental crimes increased dramatically during the 1980s and that DOJ efforts resulted in multimillion dollar criminal fines. He concludes that the reports fail to provide a meaningful basis for addressing important questions about how the government's criminal enforcement powers can best promote environmental protection.

William T. Hassler is an attorney in private practice in Washington, D.C. He worked at the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ's) Environmental Crimes Section (ECS) (which is at least in part the subject of this Dialogue), on the Rocky Flats investigation from 1990 to 1991. See infra note 19. Prior to working at the ECS, Mr. Hassler worked as an Associate Counsel on the staff of Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, investigating the Iran/Contra matter.

Although a number of individuals provided information as part of the preparation of this Dialogue, the views stated are solely Mr. Hassler's, and in no way are intended to represent the opinions of current or former officials of the DOJ, or of any private individuals interviewed.

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