- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2012

The former environmental chief for the D.C. government says he was illegally fired after raising concerns to federal regulators about a plan to delay at least part of a massive public works project aimed at reducing water pollution in the District while the city’s water utility tests an alternative plan.

Attorneys for Christophe Tulou, former director of the D.C. Department of the Environment (DDOE), said his firing violated whistleblower protections under the federal Clean Water Act, according to a complaint filed against city officials. Mr. Tulou was fired by city officials in late August for what they described only as a “breach of protocol.”

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Friday and later obtained by The Washington Times, also portrayed Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration as seeking little or no input from the city’s own environmental agency on important negotiations concerning a court-ordered plan to clean the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and Rock Creek. According to the complaint, Mr. Tulou’s firing centered on his former agency’s comments about a draft “Green Infrastructure Partnership Agreement” involving the District, EPA and D.C. Water.

Backed by D.C. Water, the draft agreement called for delaying one or more of the deadlines to build underground tunnels called for in a 2005, multibillion-dollar consent decree to clean the city’s polluted rivers while officials test a “green infrastructure” pilot program. The pilot program would seek to reduce pollution runoff through a large-scale deployment of rain gardens, porous pavement, “green roofs” and other techniques.

But the DDOE was shut out of negotiations on the draft agreement and learned of the talks only after a surprised top regional EPA official found out that Mr. Tulou and his department hadn’t been told of negotiations to reopen the 2005 consent decree, according to the complaint.

After EPA gave a copy of the proposed agreement to Mr. Tulou’s department during the summer, DDOE officials raised questions about the prospect of tunnel construction delays.

“In their comments, Tulou and DDOE expressed the concern that no deadline should be extended unless and until it was demonstrated that the alternative approach could achieve the same environmental improvements as the tunnels contemplated in the constant decree,” attorneys for Mr. Tulou wrote.

Among other comments, DDOE officials, while backing green infrastructure efforts in general, also asked for proof that D.C. Water was complying with the terms of the consent decree and called for greater public participation, according to the complaint.

DDOE believes that this agreement is lacking in terms of explaining the process and public participation that will take place should the [consent decree] be amended,” the DDOE stated, according to a copy of the its comments obtained by The Times.

“D.C. Water should employ a public participation process that actively involves the affected public, including EPA and DDOE, in the decision-making.”

In what attorneys for Mr. Tulou described as a routine transmittal, DDOE submitted the department’s comments on the draft plan to D.C. Water and EPA on Aug. 9, though Mr. Tulou had emailed the comments to several top city officials a day earlier, including to D.C. City Administrator Allen Lew, according to the complaint.

Two days before DDOE issued its comments, however, Mr. Gray sent his own letter to EPA backing D.C. Water’s plan, though Mr. Tulou’s complaint states that neither he nor his department was asked to provide any input. In his letter, Mr. Gray wrote that while D.C. Water was willing to conduct the green infrastructure pilot plan at its own expense, “it would be fiscally irresponsible” to do so while continuing to spend funds for the Potomac River and Rock Creek underground tunnels called for in the consent decree.

Within days, DDOE officials heard from the city’s office of policy and legislative affairs that Mr. Tulou’s department had acted improperly, while Mr. Lew and his chief of staff, Warren Graves, alleged that the DDOE comments also contradicted Mr. Gray’s letter, a conclusion that Mr. Tulou’s attorney’s called false, according to the complaint.

By the end of August, Mr. Tulou was called to a meeting with Mr. Lew, Mr. Graves and a city legal adviser; he was asked whether he had authorized the DDOE comments, the complaint stated. Mr. Tulou said he had and was fired the next day, according to the document.

Mr. Lew’s office last week declined to comment on the firing, and a spokesman said the city administrator’s office said he would not discuss it further. A spokesman for the D.C. office of the attorney general could not be reached by deadline Sunday, and Mr. Tulou has declined to comment. D.C. Water officials have declined to comment on questions stemming from Mr. Tulou’s firing, but say through a spokesman they’ve been public about their plans, holding two public meetings and posting information on the utility’s website.

D.C. officials first announced Mr. Tulou’s firing on the Friday before Labor Day weekend. Since then, city officials have remained silent.

Last week, a spokeswoman for D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chairwoman of the D.C. Council on the Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation, said the lawmaker had nothing to say on the situation as new details surfaced about the contents of DDOE communications to EPA.

Still, Mr. Lew addressed DDOE employees in a gathering shortly after Mr. Tulou’s firing, providing somewhat more information, according to an audio recording of his talk obtained by The Times. Mr. Lew joked about how a colleague had once said the city administrator went to the “Atilla the Hun” school of management, a line that didn’t get much reaction from the audience.

Mr. Lew also told the DDOE staff they were lucky his chief of staff, Mr. Graves, wasn’t in charge. Otherwise, there would have been “a lot more collateral damage,” Mr. Lew said. It’s a remark that, according to Mr. Tulou’s complaint, was intended to “ensure that others within DDOE would not provide comments to the EPA.”

Mr. Lew’s office declined last week to discuss the meeting.

One employee at the meeting asked about communicating with EPA in light of media accounts surrounding Mr. Tulou’s firing, but was interrupted by Mr. Lew.

“You ever heard the line ‘Timing in life is everything,’ you ever heard of that line?” Mr. Lew asked.

“Sure,” the employee said.

“This is not about not communicating,” Mr. Lew said. “We’re not talking about censoring. It’s the timing of some of those communications.”

But some employees weren’t convinced. One who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity, citing fears about job security, said the remarks had a “devastating impact on staff morale.”