The Spin Zone

Harold Reheis shows why Georgia's revolving door isn't going away

Two years ago, Harold Reheis resigned as the top environmental enforcer in the state. Less than two months later, he took a job as senior vice president with Joe Tanner & Associates, a lobbying firm that represents developers, landfill operators and power companies.

The firm was started by Joe Tanner in 1997, who himself used to be commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.

Reheis, like Tanner before him, passed through what's called the revolving door, where former lawmakers and government officials swing back into the halls of government as high-paid lobbyists.

Earlier this year, Gov. Sonny Perdue passed ethics legislation that, for the first time in Georgia, prohibits former legislators, constitutional officers and agency heads from lobbying for one year after leaving their state jobs.

Perdue's ethics legislation prevents former state workers and politicians "from coming right back in the door, and the reason you do that is the perception that it's inappropriate to use public service for your own private financial gain," says Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a nonprofit public interest group that lobbied to pass Perdue's legislation.

But Perdue's ethics legislation does little more than slow down the spinning of the revolving door - it doesn't stop it. In some cases, a one-year ban on lobbying isn't enough to limit undue influence, and Reheis is a prime example.

For 12 years, Reheis was the director of the state Environmental Protection Division, the state agency charged with protecting Georgia's rivers, soil and air. EPD regulates, among other things, how much air pollution Georgia Power can emit, where landfills can be located, and how much sewage cities can discharge in Georgia waterways.

As head of the EPD, Reheis had a direct role in all such decisions. Now he works for some of the polluting industries he once regulated.

One of Tanner & Associates' clients is Browning-Ferris Industries, a division of Allied Waste Industries Inc., the second-largest solid waste management company in the country. Since 2003, BFI has been looking to build a landfill in Emerson, a city 35 miles north of Atlanta up I-75 with just one caution light and a population of about 1,100 people. BFI, through the engineering company Southeastern Site Services, has an option to buy a dormant 1,100-acre barite mine just outside Emerson.

Not surprisingly, local opposition to the landfill is intense. Two sisters, Patricia Burton and Brenda Tidwell, started Alliance for a Better Bartow about a year ago. It now has 250 members.

Until recently, the mine and proposed landfill site were within an area that the state EPD protected because they were near Emerson Spring, the city's sole drinking water source. The spring produces 700,000 gallons of fresh water a day, even during droughts.

The landfill also would be 3,000 feet from the Etowah River, which supplies the city of Rome with drinking water. Further downstream, the Etowah spills into the Coosa River, which supplies several Alabama towns with water. The landfill also would be visible from the Etowah Indian Mounds State Park.

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires that all natural springs and drinking water sources have a protection plan. In a nutshell, these protection plans prohibit certain industries, such as landfills, from setting up shop too close to the water source. The protection plans are reviewed by EPD staff every 10 years.

But last January, William McLemore, EPD's state geologist, revoked the Emerson Spring protection plan, even though it wasn't up for review for another eight years.

"I looked at the Emerson plan and I said, 'Hey, wait a minute, that doesn't look right,' " says McLemore. "I asked my people to go back and double-check it, and quite frankly I couldn't justify the lines they had drawn."

McLemore says the boundary of protection extended across a nearby creek, which would stop any underground contamination from reaching Emerson Spring.

"It was my interpretation that the law of gravity would have to be violated [to endanger the spring] and I don't think that occurs in Bartow County," McLemore says.

McLemore notified Emerson city officials of the revocation in February 2004. When members of the Alliance for a Better Bartow found out, they were outraged. They got even angrier when they learned that Reheis was behind the revocation.

"I called McLemore," says Patricia Burton, "and I just asked, 'So you were sitting around the table one day and you said I think I'll take a look at Emerson Spring and remove the wellhead protection?'

"He said, 'No, I was asked to look at it by Mr. Reheis,' " Burton says. "My mouth dropped open. It seems that everything was geared to have this landfill come in here very quickly."

When asked what prompted his decision, McLemore says that Reheis dropped by his office in January 2004, and asked if the Emerson Spring protection plan existed.

"And I said, 'I'll check for you,'" McLemore says. "He never saw it. I made an independent decision to [rescind the protections]."

Reheis did not return messages left for him at the Tanner & Associates office.

McLemore, since revoking the spring's protection plan, has attempted to redraw the protection area around Emerson Spring. But after sending EPD employees to study the area, McLemore has yet to determine the safety zone around the spring.

"Finally, what we decided was the area is very complex and we should hire our own consultant who would draw the plan," he says. EPD will hire a contractor to do the study at the end of May. Carol Couch, Reheis' successor at the EPD, has said that a new protection plan for Emerson Spring must be enacted before deciding whether a landfill should open there.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for a Better Bartow is getting legal help from the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory University's School of Law. "We're not about to file a lawsuit, but this is a case we'll be working on for a while," says staff attorney Larry Sanders. "We'll do whatever we can to keep that landfill from being sited there."

Even though Reheis joined the private sector well before Perdue's ethics law went into effect, he did wait one year before he started lobbying the Legislature. And it's been two years since he was director of the EPD. Yet, through his influence in the EPD offices, he's helped BFI with its quest to build a landfill in Emerson.

"I think one year prohibition of lobbying is a good start," says Common Cause's Bozarth. Reheis' actions "are an example of how someone can still exercise power several years later. It's not against the law, and whether it's ethical or not is a debate."

Bozarth would like to see a law forcing former state officials to wait five years before lobbying.