I-Team: Fired DEP workers say agency not doing its job

Ex-employees say environmental regulation weakened

The job of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection is right in their name- they're supposed to protect the environment. But some of their own recently fired employees say the agency is losing its power to accomplish its mission.

Marilyn Koletzke was an engineer for the DEP at its Tallahassee office. Four months ago, she was fired for poor performance, according to personnel files. She claims she was actually fired for speaking out against changes at DEP.

"Anyone who was involved in any kind of enforcement case was pressured to step back or leave," Koletzke said.

Koletzke says under Governor Scott, good employees are being fired or forced out in an effort to weaken the agency's environmental regulation of businesses.

"A slaughterhouse, really, is how it felt, because you just didn't know where the target was going to be next," Koletzke said.

In Tampa's office alone, 25 employees were fired in October, and 14 other vacant positions were eliminated. The I-Team requested records of the fired workers, and found that more than half were environmental specialists or engineers with 10 or more years of experience.

Five of the recently fired workers agreed to speak with the I-Team, on the condition that they not be named. Each worker claimed they were fearful speaking publicly would hurt their chances of getting a new job.

All five told the same story as Koletzke: that DEP is now weaker and less effective at doing its job.

Jerry Phillips, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, blames Governor Scott for cutting back on regulation.

"Anything they can do to increase business, they will do, and the environment is secondary," Phillips said.

"What's wrong with being pro-business and reducing some of the enforcement actions and allowing some of these businesses to operate more freely?" asked I-Team investigator Michael George.

"They may have short-term growth, but what happens when ultimately we have to clean up the mess that's created?" Phillips responded.

Governor Scott's office referred questions to DEP. The agency would not make anyone available to speak on camera, but did provide an e-mailed statement.

"Recent reorganizations within the Department have been conducted after months-long assessments of procedures and processes as well as staffing and workload levels…No programs or core functions have been eliminated and our level of service will not be compromised," said Patrick Gillespie, press secretary for the agency.

Koletzke argues this isn't about cutting the fat from government. She believes it's about the long term impact to the air and water in Florida.

"I'd hate to see us return to that, where we have ozone and particulate smog levels like they have in Los Angeles," Koletzke said.

DEP maintains the job cuts only amount to 1.5% of their total staff.

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