EPA official pleads guilty in fraud case

Published September 1, 2000

An EPA attorney accused of falsifying documents in a hotly disputed wetlands case in Wisconsin pleaded guilty June 27 to contempt of court.

Marc M. Radell, 41, faces up to six months in prison and up to $5,000 in fines when he is sentenced in September. Radell and another EPA official, Claudia Johnson, were indicted in August 1999 on federal charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and perjury. Johnson, 36, died of cancer earlier this year.

The two were charged with falsifying and backdating documents supporting EPA decisions in 1996 granting so-called “Treatment as a State” (TAS) status to three Wisconsin Indian tribes. TAS status would have allowed the three tribes–Oneida, Menominee, and Lac du Flambeau Chippewa band–power to regulate waters in and around their reservations in northern Wisconsin.

The State of Wisconsin, local governments, and area businesses sued EPA over its TAS decision, pointing out that most of the affected land was owned by people who were not members of the tribes.

In the ensuing litigation, it became clear, despite EPA’s claims to the contrary, that certain documents the agency had submitted to the court as part of its official record had been created after the agency had rendered its TAS decision, and then backdated to make them appear authentic. An EPA official in Region V (Chicago) tried to warn his superiors that the agency’s paperwork had been tampered with, but he was not able to get anyone in the regional office or at EPA headquarters in Washington to take action.

Meanwhile, Johnson and Radell stated repeatedly under oath that the documents were authentic. The attempt to cover up EPA’s misconduct was undone in the spring of 1997, when an independent computer expert retrieved deleted documents from an agency computer. The retrieved e-mails showed conclusively that the documents had been created in late May 1996 and then backdated to January of that year. EPA was made to pay the State of Wisconsin and other parties to the suit $369,000 in attorneys fees.

In the aftermath of the scandal, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson wrote a letter to Dave Ulrich, acting regional administrator for EPA Region V, demanding an apology for the agency’s “abhorrent conduct and the great cost and harm it has caused.” Thompson never got the apology.

The story was broken in a report issued by the National Wilderness Institute in May 1998. As a result, the Justice Department launched an investigation into the scandal. That investigation culminated in the indictment of Radell and Johnson on multiple felony charges in August of last year.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.