- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida’s chief environmental regulator, who has had a stormy two years on the job, is taking a position with a law firm paid millions by the state to help with a high-stakes water battle with Georgia.

Jon Steverson, the secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection, submitted his resignation letter to Gov. Rick Scott late last week.

Steverson’s letter didn’t say where he was headed, but agency spokeswoman Lauren Engel said Monday that he has “accepted an opportunity” with the firm of Foley & Lardner. Herschel Vinyard, who headed up the agency before Steverson, also works for the firm.

Foley & Lardner, which has offices throughout the country, has had a contract with the department since 2008 stemming from a dispute between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river systems. Since 2015, the firm has been paid $2.6 million for its work.

State records show that, during his time as secretary, Steverson signed off on a new contract with Foley and approved an agreement to pay the firm when its previous contract had lapsed.

Florida law does not prohibit a state official from taking a job with a company that has a contract with the state. Steverson, who is an attorney, is prohibited from working on the contract that he oversaw while he was secretary.

Engel did not respond to a request for comment from Steverson about going to work for Foley. Steverson’s last day on the job is Feb. 3.

Florida’s water battle has gone on for two decades now.

The legal battle over the river system’s water hit a crucial point in 2009, when a federal judge ruled that the city of Atlanta had little right to take water from Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River.

But in 2011 the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, and instead ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to figure out how to allocate the water. The Corps operates dams that control water flows in the river system.

Sparked by complaints from Florida’s oystermen who contend the lack of fresh water has decimated the industry, Scott in 2013 decided to take the dispute directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. A court official earlier this month ordered attorneys for Florida and Georgia to try again to settle the case.

Ever since Scott pushed the new challenge, legal costs have mounted. Four firms have been paid nearly $30 million since July 2015 - including an additional $19.6 million in the past six months. The bulk of the payments have gone to Washington, D.C.-based firm Latham & Watkins.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and House budget chief, called DEP’s soaring legal expenses a “runaway train.” He started raising questions about the costs after DEP recently asked the Legislature to set aside an additional $13 million for legal costs. Trujillo said he talked to Steverson last week about the expenses, but then said he found out Saturday that he had resigned.

During his time at DEP secretary, Steverson came under fire after he suggested raising more money from state parks by expanding cattle grazing and timber harvesting. DEP was also criticized after the agency did not immediately notify the public that a huge sinkhole formed under a fertilizer plant and sent contaminated water and fertilizer into Florida’s main drinking water aquifer.

Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott, said Monday that Steverson stepped down to accept his new job and was not asked to resign by the governor.

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