- Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - No evidence can be found that Republican Gov. John Kasich exerted inappropriate influence over the state’s pollution discharge permitting process for coal facilities or over the high-profile departure of the program’s top official, the state watchdog said Thursday.

Four Democratic lawmakers asked Inspector General Randall Meyer last year to investigate Kasich’s sway over the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The request followed ousted Surface Water Division chief George Elmaraghy’s allegations that coal interests pressured the Kasich administration to force his retirement.

An Associated Press review found the agency had allowed 13 permits that impose certain pollution limits on coal facilities to expire in Kasich’s first term. Several holders of the expired permits had given generously to Kasich’s gubernatorial campaign.

Meyer said in his report his investigators could find nothing to show Kasich had a direct role in the permitting lags or the agency’s staffing decisions, an assertion Elmaraghy continued to dispute Thursday. The report attributed the delays to a host of factors - including time required to go through the shared state and federal environmental and technical reviews and ongoing legal action. A regional U.S. EPA official praised Ohio’s program when interviewed by investigators.

Elmaraghy and another EPA employee, reassigned water quality manager Bruce Goff, had gone to Meyer with allegations of political influence at the agency. They said at least three other officials, including then-EPA Director Scott Nally, had been forced out by the governor’s office. Goff later was returned to his position.

In determining no administration influence was brought to bear, Meyer relied in part on written resignations and retirement requests by four of the five employees. He also said the lack of formal complaints filed by two of the men left “nothing to indicate that the resignation and retirement were anything other than voluntary.”

Nally told investigators he made personnel decisions based on specific job-related issues and felt no outside pressure in such matters. He said his resignation was voluntary and stemmed from being “tired.”

Elmaraghy said in an interview Thursday that he sticks by his past statements, which first surfaced in an email he sent to staff members.

“I was forced. I was given a resignation letter and given two hours to sign it or be terminated,” he repeated Thursday. “It is really discouraging to see the truth twisted and the facts ignored in this report. It’s just politics.”

The report said Elmaraghy “stated multiple times” he had email proof of his claims but was never able to produce it.

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols declined to elaborate on the inspector general’s findings: “The IG report speaks sufficiently for itself.”

State Rep. Debbie Phillips, among the Democrats who requested the investigation, expressed disappointment in findings by Meyer, a Kasich appointee whose office is set up to operate independently.

“After more than one year, an out-of-court cash settlement and a change in leadership at the OEPA, it is frustrating that the inspector general - a man who helped Governor Kasich raise campaign cash - has reportedly found no wrongdoing in the governor’s office or with expired pollution permits of Kasich campaign contributors,” she said.

Kasich began his second term in January. He also is weighing a run for president.

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