Regulator, Captured: The Stephanie Timmermeyer Story

LittleSis researchers are currently digging into the histories of current government and industry figures in the fracking debate, searching for overlaps, “revolving door” employment patterns, and conflicts of interest. Expect frequent updates from us about people and organizations of interest, and please consider lending a hand by joining the Fracker Watch research group, where you can also find some of the lists we’ve been working on, such as the New York State Fracking Lobbyists list.

Chesapeake lobbyist Stephanie Timmermeyer.
Chesapeake lobbyist Stephanie Timmermeyer.

Today’s post concerns a top lobbyist for the embattled industry giant Chesapeake Energy, Stephanie Timmermeyer, who is the company’s director of regulatory affairs in the Appalachian Basin xand one of nine Chesapeake lobbyists registered in New York State. Chesapeake has spent big to influence policy in New York – according to NYPIRG data referenced in Common Cause’s 2011 report Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets, Chesapeake was the 18th-largest lobbying interest in the state in 2010, with over $1 million in expenditures.

Timmermeyer’s career blurs the line between public service and corporate subservience; she has moved through the revolving door into government and back out again, working as a corporate attorney, then as secretary of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, and now as a Chesapeake lobbyist, but never forgetting who she really worked for (hint: not the public). As a regulator, she went soft on industry; as a corporate lobbyist, she leverages her regulatory experience to ease the way for Chesapeake. She is hardly the company’s sole investment in regulatory capture, but her career is a case study in the revolving door and all the skewed incentives that come with it.

I. Early Warning Signs

Timmermeyer’s career trajectory is a lesson in the spoils that come with corporate hackery. In 1999, while still attending law school, she was a legal intern for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Two years later she was the department’s air quality director, and two years after that she became the youngest-ever holder of the state’s top environmental job, Secretary of the DEP.

What propelled this rapid ascent? Her qualifications were a bit thin for someone ostensibly working to *protect* the environment. Before joining the DEP as air quality director, she had done a stint at the law firm Spilman, Thomas & Battle, which has defended chemical manufacturer DuPont against countless charges of extreme environmental negligence. In the course of her work there, Timmermeyer had represented DuPont in cases involving air and water pollution by C8, a toxic chemical. Prior to graduating law school, she had worked as a project manager for Potesta & Associates, an environmental consulting firm also frequently retained by DuPont. Before law school, she’d worked at American Electric Power overseeing utility line-clearing crews.

At the time Timmermeyer became the head of environmental protection in West Virginia, all three of these former employers were represented on the Environmental Committee of the state’s pro-business Chamber of Commerce, along with officials from chemical-producing giants Dow and BASF as well as the West Virginia Petroleum Council.

Apparently, corporate connections trumped strong credentials when it came time to pick a DEP Secretary. Notably, Timmermeyer got the top job despite the candidacy of a WVU law professor and career environmental and public-interest advocate, who additionally had the support of six state and regional environmental groups for the position. “I’m sure everybody is tired of hearing about my background” was her breezy reply to worries about regulatory capture – it’s unfortunate that the people of West Virginia heard too little about Timmermeyer and her loyalties before she was appointed.

II. A “Hand Puppet” for DuPont?

DuPont seemed to be quite happy with the new DEP secretary. A company attorney’s internal memo that came to light during a class-action pollution and negligence lawsuit doesn’t mention Timmermeyer by name, but clearly implies that her past work for both Dupont and their consultants Potesta & Associates would win out over her obligation to regulate their handling of toxic spill cleanup jobs:

We have a great relationship with Potesta. They have a very deep relationship with the WVDEP. They have every reason to be helpful to DuPont. The key will be to maintaining [sic] day to day communications, regardless of who “on paper” is the LRS [Licensed Remediation Specialist, a DEP-certified supervisor of cleanup operations whose “overriding duty … is to protect the safety, health and welfare of the public”].

While Timmermeyer was air quality director, the DEP actually spiked a release warning residents about toxic emissions from a DuPont plant, under pressure from the company. The Charleston Gazette noted her ties to the company:

In early March 2002, state environmental regulators planned to warn Wood County residents that the toxic chemical C8 was spreading across the area through air emissions from DuPont Co.’s Parkersburg plant. … But the public never got that news. The DEP killed its release after complaints from a DuPont lawyer, according to records obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act. … Before joining state government [in 2001], DEP Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer was a lawyer at [DuPont rep Ann] Bradley’s firm. Timmermeyer helped DuPont draft the 2001 consent order with the DEP, records show. (Charleston Gazette, July 2005, “DuPont lawyer edited DEP’s C8 media releases”)

Timmermeyer had been on the DuPont end of a similar exchange in the past; in a deposition, a former DEP spokesman testified that as a lawyer for Spilman/DuPont, prior to joining the DEP, she had once called him and asked him to change a press release.

Attorney Robert Kennedy, Jr later zeroed in on Timmermeyer’s ties to DuPont during the trial for a lawsuit against the company, calling her a DuPont “hand puppet”:

DuPont manipulated state environmental regulators and lied to residents about the dangers surrounding a zinc-smelting plant in Spelter and should now pay a high price for its wanton, willful and reckless conduct, attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. argued Thursday as a class-action medical monitoring lawsuit went to the jury. … Kennedy said DuPont “had the state wired” with close contacts with people including DEP Secretary – and former DuPont attorney – Stephanie Timmermeyer. “This agency was a hand puppet for this company,” he charged.(Associated Press, October 2007, “DuPont Lawsuit Winds Down”)

DuPont wasn’t Timmermeyer’s only corporate master, however; she also showed a friendly face to the coal industry:

Coal companies are getting new strip mining permits faster and will continue to see the regulatory process streamlined under the Manchin administration, Environmental Protection Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer told industry officials Friday. … Chris Hamilton, vice president of the Coal Association, said the association has been much happier with the agency since Timmermeyer fired Matthew B. Crum as its mining director in August 2003. Crum had led an effort to crack down on blackwater spills at Massey Energy operations, and pushed for tougher permit rules to limit mining’s contribution to flooding. Timmermeyer has refused to explain why she removed Crum. (Charleston Gazette, February 2005, “Timmermeyer touts faster mine permitting”)

Years later, multiple sources told the New York Times that Eustace Frederick, a powerful state legislator with coal industry ties, said to Timmermeyer point-blank that her nomination to the DEP’s top job would be confirmed only if she agreed to fire Crum.

III. Back Through the Revolving Door

Midway through her stint as a public official, Timmermeyer requested an exemption from a state law that would have prevented her from taking a job at a company regulated by Environmental Protection for six months after leaving office. Her request was granted, and after resigning from the DEP in 2008 she was listed as a registered lobbyist in West Virginia that same year.

In 2009, Ken Ward – the Charleston Gazette environmental reporter who had consistently raised questions about Timmermeyer’s DEP leadership – reported that “some coal industry folks were putting Timmermeyer’s name forward” as a pro-industry candidate for a federal Department of the Interior directorship, in the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). She was not selected for that job, though the candidate who was, Joe Pizarchik, was known to share her industry-friendly slant on environmental regulation. Instead, Timmermeyer joined natural gas giants Chesapeake Energy in 2011, though she appears to have been acting as legal counsel for its subsidiary Chesapeake Appalachia as early as November 2010.

While her work with Chesapeake takes her as far afield as the company’s shale drilling sites in Pennsylvania and now its lobbying base in Albany,  Timmermeyer’s West Virginia connections are still valuable in her current job, as evidenced by a May 2011 item in the Morgantown (W. Va.) Dominion Post, “Gas Drilling OK’d Near City”:

The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has approved permits for two Marcellus gas wells in the Morgantown Industrial Park. Site preparation has begun, said Michael John, president of Northeast Natural Energy, the Charleston-based company that will do the drilling. Some officials and watershed advocates are concerned that the site sits upstream from Morgantown Utility Board’s drinking water treatment plant intake. … [Utility board general manager Tim] Ball formed a technical advisory group to deal with any potential threat to MUB’s watershed. Group members are Ball; Downstream Strategies President Evan Hansen; Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the WVU’s Water Research Institute; and Stephanie Timmermeyer, a former DEP secretary and now director of regulatory affairs, Eastern Division, Chesapeake Energy.

Despite her current work as a lobbyist for a major fracker in the Marcellus Shale, her credentials as a former Secretary of the DEP apparently qualify her to protect the public drinking supply from fracking-related contamination. It is easy to see why these kinds of credentials are valuable to Chesapeake.

Timmermeyer’s most recent press mention came last November, when she announced that Chesapeake would spend $25,000 to seal off a residential water well contaminated by a blowout at one of the company’s many Pennsylvania natural gas wells – not because Chesapeake was responsible for the contamination, but simply “to be a good neighbor”:

Timmermeyer stated, “It was pretty clear that this water quality was always at this state and it was just something that we offered to do and agreed to take care of.” … Chesapeake highlighted Timmermeyer’s “public service” as a former Cabinet Secretary in West Virginia.

Chesapeake’s (and the fracking industry’s) revolving door operations go far beyond Timmermeyer, but her career offers a telling look at the dynamics of regulatory capture and just how much damage the revolving door can do to the public interest. Her story, and those of other lobbyists who have successfully disguised their industry allegiances during terms as “public servants,” is especially relevant to New York State and Ohio, states where the natural gas industry has not (yet) established itself as the dominant political force it has in Pennsylvania.

Joseph Martens, the head of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, named further examination of fracking as one of his office’s priorities for 2012, writing that it presents a “challenge and workload” but may offer “economic benefits … and energy independence.” These are claims that can be properly evaluated only if the influence of natural gas producers is kept to an absolute minimum. Martens and his counterparts in other states – a group that once included Stephanie Timmermeyer – must be monitored vigilantly by the public or their sworn duties will be subjugated to the financial interests of companies like Chesapeake. LittleSis provides a framework for this type of citizen activism; we’ll need all the researchers we can get to have an impact, so join us.