10 Guerilla Government

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Guerilla Government

Rosemary O’Leary

Guerrilla: One who engages in irregular warfare especially as a member of an independent unit (Webster’s Dictionary, 2009).

“Fire the bastard!” I can still hear my boss yelling at me, instructing me to get rid of my most creative and passionate employee. I was 28 years old and the director of policy and planning for a state environmental agency. My employee, earnestly dedicated to environmental concerns, had turned into a “guerrilla,” working clandestinely with environmental groups and the media, leaking data, and showing up at night-time public hearings blasting the governor and my boss for “caveman-era water policies.” He was seeking to accomplish outside the organization what he could not accomplish within the organization.

In this chapter I present the idea of “Guerrilla government”, briefly highlight relevant literature, present an in depth case study of guerrilla government, and then offer questions to ponder about the ethics of guerrilla government.

“Guerrilla government,” (O’Leary 1994; 2006) is my term for the actions of career public servants who work against the wishes—either implicitly or explicitly communicated—of their superiors. Guerrilla government is a form of dissent usually carried out by those who are dissatisfied with the actions of public organizations, programs, or people but who typically, for strategic reasons, choose not to go public with their concerns in whole or in part. A few guerrillas end up outing themselves as whistle-blowers, but most do not.

Rather than acting openly, guerrillas often choose to remain “in the closet,” moving clandestinely behind the scenes, salmon swimming upstream against the current of power. Over the years I have learned that the motivations driving guerillas are diverse. Their reasons for acting range from the altruistic (doing the right thing) to the seemingly petty (I was passed over for that promotion). Taken as a whole, their acts are as awe inspiring as saving human lives out of a love of humanity and as trifling as slowing the issuance of a report out of spite or anger. Guerrillas run the spectrum from anti-establishment liberals to fundamentalist conservatives, from constructive contributors to deviant destroyers. Guerrilla government is about the power of career bureaucrats; the tensions between career bureaucrats and political appointees; organization culture and what it means to act responsibly, ethically, and with integrity as a public servant.

Most guerrillas work on the assumption that their work outside their agencies provides them a latitude that is not available in formal settings. Some want to see interest groups join, if not replace, formal government as the foci of power. Some are tired of hard-ball power politics and seek to replace it with collaboration and inclusivity. Others are implementing their own version of hard-ball politics. Most have a wider conceptualization of their work than that articulated by their agency’s formal and informal statements of mission, but some are more freewheeling, doing what feels right to them. Some are committed to a particular methodology, technique, or idea. For some, guerrilla activity is a form of expressive behavior that allows them leverage on issues about which they feel deeply. For others, guerrilla activity is a way of carrying out extreme viewpoints about pressing public policy problems.

Guerrillas bring the credibility of the formal, bureaucratic, political system with them, as well as the credibility of their individual professions. They tend to be independent, multipolar, and sometimes radical. They often have strong views that their agency’s perspective on public policy problems is at best not sufficient, at worst illegal. They are not afraid to reach into new territory and often seek to drag the rest of the system with them to explore new possibilities.

At the same time, guerrillas run the risk of being unregulated themselves. Sometimes they fail to see the big picture, promoting policies that may not be compatible with the system as a whole. Sometimes they are so caught up in fulfilling their own expressive and instrumental purposes that they may not fulfill the purposes of their organization. This is the dilemma of guerrilla government.

Every seasoned public official with whom I have discussed guerrilla government agrees that it happens, and has offered his or her own stories and examples of this phenomenon. For example, I received the following email message in response to my call for stories of guerrilla government:

I worked for 35 years as a federal employee and now teach at American University. The instances of guerrilla government are far more widespread than you imagine….

Three Lenses

The great thinkers in the social sciences have for years grappled with guerrilla government under very different labels and in very diverse ways. There are three major lenses or vantage points from which to view guerrilla government that emerge from the social science literature; each offers a different type of understanding. The three lenses are bureaucratic politics, organizations and management, and ethics. They are briefly introduced here.

Bureaucratic Politics

The bureaucratic politics literature is vast and spans several decades. The key points about bureaucratic politics are that career public servants make policy through the exercise of discretion (Appleby 1949), and public administration is a political process (Appleby 1949; Stein 1952; Cleveland 1956; Key 1958). Moreover, bureaucrats and bureaucracy are driven by their own highly particularized and parochial views, interests, and values (Long 1949) and bureaucrats’ views tend to be influenced by the unique culture of their agencies (Halperin and Kanter 1973). All bureaucracies are endowed with certain resources that career public servants may use to get their way: policy expertise, longevity and continuity, and responsibility for program implementation (Rourke 1984). Agencies and bureaucrats within agencies often seek to co-opt outside groups as a means of averting threats (Selznick 1949).

Organizations and Management

Classic organization theorists such as Cyert and March (1963), Emery and Trist (1965), Katz and Kahn (1966), Thompson (1967), Lawrence and Lorsch (1969), and Aldrich (1972) all maintained that organizations both are shaped by and seek to shape the environment in which they exist. This “open systems” approach to understanding organizations maintains that organizations are in constant interaction with their environments, that organization boundaries are permeable, and that organizations both consume resources and export resources to the outside world. In other words, organizations do not exist in a vacuum. Public organizations, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the case study that follows, seek to thrive in environments that include influences by the concerned public, elected officials, the judiciary, interest groups, and non-governmental organizations to name just a few of the entities influencing them. Working with, and being influenced by, individuals and groups outside one’s organization has long been a fact of life for public servants (Gaus 1948; Brownlow 1955; Wildavsky 1964; Stillman 2003).

Ethics: The Most Important Lens

Since other chapters in this book delve very deeply into the literature on ethics, I will overview only the most relevant works here. Ethics is the study of values and how to define right and wrong action (Van Wart 1998; Menzel 1999, Cooper 1998, Cooper 2001). Waldo (1988) offered a map of the ethical obligations of public servants, with special reference to the United States. His map is still relevant today and is especially applicable to the issue of guerrilla government. In his map, Waldo identified a dozen sources and types of ethical obligations, but cautioned that the list is capable of “indefinite expansion” (p. 103), and that the obligations do not lend themselves to any prioritization.

Waldo’s 12 ethical obligations are presented in Box 1. The message of Waldo’s map of ethical obligations is that different public servants will be compelled by different ethical obligations. This makes iron-clad conclusions about whether guerrillas are right or wrong at times difficult. Compounding this analytical challenge is the “problem of ambiguity” in making ethical determinations (Fleishman, 1981; Rohr, 1988; Cooper, 1998; Dobel 1999).

Figure 10.1 here

Case Study: Guerrilla Government in the EPA’s Seattle Regional Office

When Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in 1980, he sought to make dramatic changes in the federal government. One study summed up his mission and purpose as follows:

He believed simply that government should spend less, do less, and interfere less with private enterprise. For 25 years since he began to make his living and his reputation as a conservative lecturer, Ronald Reagan had spent his time among those who argued there was too much government. He believed government was in the hands of people who “think control is better than freedom.” He believed the bureaucrats had shackled American industry through regulation. “There are,” Reagan said, “tens of thousands of ... regulations I’d like to see eliminated” (Lash, Gillman, and Sheridan 1984, xi–xii).... In his inaugural address Reagan said “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” (13)

Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In her testimony during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Gorsuch said, “The President is committed to regulatory reform and ... I share [that] commitment.... There is no greater opportunity to effectuate that goal than the one ahead at EPA” (U.S. Senate, 96th Cong., 2d Sess.). Reagan and Gorsuch implemented that commitment by handpicking for the EPA regional administrators whose beliefs matched theirs. One of these appointees was Gorsuch’s good friend John Spencer. His tenure at EPA and the later EPA appointment of Robie Russell serve as examples both of the subtle and sophisticated power of guerrilla government and of some of the conditions under which guerrilla government might emerge.

John Spencer and the Reign of Terror, 1981–1983

On August 3, 1981, John R. Spencer became the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Seattle Region 10 office, which encompasses Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State. Prior to his appointment Spencer had worked as the executive manager of municipal utilities in Anchorage. He also was a former city attorney and a former vice president of RCA Alaska Communications, Inc. Upon his appointment Spencer assured the public that he would ­foster a “pragmatic response” to pollution problems and called for an end to ­”regulation for regulation’s sake” (UPI, April 2, 1983).1 To top EPA career public servants at Region 10 he announced that his approach would be “management by stark terror.”2

Spencer’s tenure at EPA is memorable for a number of actions. First, he announced plans to buy, with taxpayers’ money, an official membership for the EPA in the Chamber of Commerce (UPI, November 6, 1981), an organization active in lobbying both the EPA and state environmental agencies (Clines and Weinraub 1981). He was repeatedly told by career staff in the Region 10 Management Division that this expenditure was not allowable under federal guidelines, but he continued to pursue the matter. After the move was blasted by U.S. Rep. Toby Moffett, D-Conn., as raising “serious conflict-of-interest questions affecting the entire agency’s decision-making processes,” and by environmentalists who said that EPA was “paying to get in bed with big business” (UPI, November 12, 1981), Spencer dropped the idea.

According to career public servants in the Region 10 office at the time, Spencer also took some trips at public expense that were not clearly government activities. It appeared that some of the trips were to conclude personal business from his previous job in Alaska. He also asked that a personal driver be assigned to him on a full-time basis and sought modifications to the EPA office building without getting the approval of the General Services Administration as mandated by federal law. A staff member filed an anonymous complaint with the EPA Inspector General’s Office concerning these alleged improprieties. (The Office of Inspector General conducts audits, investigations, and evaluations of agency activities as part of its mission to improve agency performance and prevent fraud and abuse.)

When the director of the Management Division (see table 10.1 for his résumé) heard about the complaint to the inspector general, he did nothing, contrary to the wishes of Spencer:

He [Spencer] held me responsible for ... [the complaint to the inspector general]. I didn’t know who did it, and I didn’t want to know who did it. I viewed that as being a privilege and a duty of government employees when they see wrongdoing to turn it in. So I made no effort to find out who did this. ­Although he never spoke to me directly about it, I was told indirectly that he was unhappy and felt that if I wanted to I could control ... [employees who were going to the inspector general]. Somehow ... [I was supposed to be able to] prevent the staff from parading his embarrassment by turning him in to the inspector general. My response was that I did nothing. Needless to say, there was a fair amount of tension between him and me.

Table 10.1 here

Director Transferred

When that same director of the Management Division, a man whose appointment to the Senior Executive Service was nearly complete prior to Spencer’s arrival, repeatedly told Spencer that procedures needed to be followed and that public funds could not be used for personal trips or for a personal driver, Spencer retaliated by transferring the director to a new position he had created for him in another division and refused to finalize his SES appointment:

He called me into his office and told me that he wasn’t comfortable in doing business with me and he wanted to reassign me. I asked him why. His answer was that he just was uncomfortable doing business with me.... [I was later told that he] wanted to make an example of one of his division directors to show the rest of his staff that he had the ability to fire somebody. I think that would be consistent with his “management by stark terror” idea. Show the staff that you have the ability and the will to remove somebody if they displease you.

From that day through the end of Spencer’s tenure, the former director of the Management Division was excluded from most senior management meetings.

Corps Lobbied

Next Spencer lobbied the Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of a yacht club of which he was a member for rapid approval of a dredging permit. Spencer mailed the yacht club’s application to the corps, attaching a cover letter written on EPA stationary and signed by him as regional administrator, asking the corps to issue a permit the same week. Spencer wrote a second letter the following month, emphasizing that “quick action is imperative” (UPI, March 9, 1983). The letters became part of the public record, and when environmentalists discovered them, they quickly went to the press. The yacht club eventually withdrew the request and replaced it with another one, which was denied because of concerns expressed by the Washington State Department of Game.

Lenient Enforcement

Spencer also was criticized for not vigorously enforcing the law. An example is the case of the Western Processing Company of Kent, Washington, which continually delayed cleaning up hazardous waste (UPI, April 2, 1983). The EPA could have assessed penalties of up to $5,000 per day for failure to implement an EPA cleanup order, but it didn’t. “For the time being,” Spencer was quoted as saying, “with the promise of cooperation from Western Processing, EPA will forgo litigation” (BNA Environment Reporter, September 24, 1982), this despite the fact that EPA officials said the chemicals at the site had the potential to threaten the city of Kent’s water supply (UPI, April 29, 1983).

Similarly, Spencer, whose nomination to the EPA post was shepherded by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, tentatively approved wastewater treatment exemptions for two large Alaska pulp mills during his tenure (UPI, November 29, 1984). According to EPA staff who analyzed the application, the exemptions clearly were not warranted under the law. The approval was eventually overturned by Spencer’s successor, Ernesta Barnes.

In the same pulp mill case, Spencer ordered EPA staff to release confidential information provided by ITT-Rayonier, the operator of pulp mills at Port Angeles and Hoquiam, to two of ITT-Rayonier’s competitors (UPI, August 9, 1983). One former EPA employee described the situation:

The engineer [who drafted the report containing confidential business information] took the report, as demanded [by Spencer], to the regional administrator ... and the regional administrator wasn’t in his office. He was gone for the day, and the engineer asked what to do with the report. He was instructed to give it to a person who was waiting in the regional administrator’s office. When he went into the office he recognized the person as being associated with [the competitor’s] mill.... So the engineer ... refused to give him the report.

The engineer went back to his office to discuss the matter with his colleagues. They decided to stamp “Confidential Business Information” throughout the report, “so there would be no doubt about what parts of it legally were not disclosable,” and hand delivered it to the regional administrator’s home. The staff members suspected that Spencer gave the report to the competing mill anyway, but they waited to act on their suspicions.

Political Use of Superfund Triggers Spencer’s Resignation

Spencer’s name also showed up in a report on alleged political use of Superfund monies by Susan Baldyga, a special assistant to fired EPA assistant administrator Rita Lavelle, who had forged sweetheart deals with industry and had lied to Congress. (“Superfund” is the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation Liability Act, which mandates the cleanup of hazardous waste sites.) Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., publicly charged Spencer with participating in a plan, allegedly fostered by the Reagan administration, to use $1.6 billion of Superfund money “to help reelect Republicans” (UPI, March 23, 1983). Spencer strongly denied the allegations but resigned as regional administrator less than two weeks later, soon after Anne Gorsuch and eighteen other high-level EPA officials were fired or resigned.3 Many of the Seattle EPA Regional Office staff vowed never again to tolerate a regional administrator like Spencer or to cooperate with a “reign of terror.” The stage had been set for more extreme guerrilla government activity.

Gorsuch resigned under a cloud of controversy. She had slashed the EPA budget, destroyed morale at the agency, and alienated Congress by refusing to give an investigative committee documents concerning the agency’s controversial Superfund program. Furthermore, Gorsuch had a “hit list” of career EPA staff and advisory board members to be fired, hired, or promoted because of their political leanings. The Senior Executives Association (SEA) asked the Office of Special Counsel of the Merit Systems Protection Board to begin an investigation of the actions. The list, which was released by a congressional committee investigating the activities at the EPA, included comments about the individuals listed such as “bleeding heart liberal” and “invidious environmental extremist” (BNA Environment Reporter, April 7, 1983). “This kind of abuse of the merit system represents a gross violation of the Civil Service Reform Act,” said SEA president Jean Courturier in a press release. “If uncorrected, [it] would have a chilling effect on the career Senior Executive Service.... This type of political shenanigans threatens the very basis of the career merit system....” (BNA Environment Reporter, April 7, 1983).

Staff Again Contact Inspector General

Spencer, the first of the Reagan regional administrators to resign, went to work for Riedel International, Inc., a firm involved in maritime construction, transportation, and environmental cleanup, as senior vice president. He quit his EPA job after only eighteen months. Before he left the EPA, Riedel International was awarded an EPA contract to clean up the hazardous Western Processing plant. The contract was not awarded in a competitive bidding process, said Jim Willman, chief of the EPA’s Region 10 emergency response team, because cleanup at the Western site constituted an “emergency” (UPI, April 20, 1983).

The week Spencer announced his resignation, EPA career staff people went to the inspector general again. One described the situation:

He [Spencer] came around to announce that he was going to leave. He had secured a job in private industry. So it really was that I had a dilemma in my mind at that point: should I do anything about my suspicions that he had given confidential business information to this company or not. And after thinking about it for a period of time, I decided that I should call the inspector general and share my concerns with them. My reasons, to be candid with you, were that I really believed that this individual was not the kind of person to be in public service. I wanted to raise a cloud over his candidacy. Even though he was leaving, it was unlikely that anybody would do anything, but I wanted there to be something on the record that might indicate there was a question about his performance in the event that he was ever considered for public office again.

Spencer Investigated

John Spencer’s actions were investigated by the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General, in consultation with the Office of the U.S. Attorney General. In a report issued August 8, 1983, the investigators concluded that while Spencer engaged in improprieties, there was “insufficient evidence to warrant criminal action” (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1983). The UPI reported, “Paul E. Olson, EPA’s assistant inspector general, said prosecution wasn’t warranted because no harm was done—[there was insufficient evidence to conclude that] the confidential information was ... released and the marina never got the dredging permit” (UPI, August 9, 1983). EPA career staff were stunned and disappointed at the mild report by the inspector general.

EPA staff had been taken aback by Spencer. Never before had they had a regional administrator with whom they clashed so much. Said one EPA employee,

The whole organization, I think, was surprised by the degree to which they had been traumatized by this guy. Morale was pretty bad, fear was among people, and the trust level was practically zero. I think that under his [Spencer’s] administration not many of the staff trusted him ... and those who cooperated with him, I think their credibility ... had been severely damaged.

Staff Gear Up for More Guerrilla Activities

As a new regional administrator was about to be appointed, EPA Region 10 staff geared up for a fight. They had learned from their negative dealings with Spencer and felt they had been too easy on him. Those who confronted Spencer directly had been reassigned or demoted. Those who had appealed to the next person in the chain of command were placed on Gorsuch’s blacklist. Some no longer trusted the Inspector General’s Office. Staff members initially were hesitant to leak information to the press, viewing such action as unprofessional. It was better to resolve things internally, they thought. As a result of the Spencer experience, however, EPA Region 10 staff became more open to such guerrilla activities.

They braced themselves for more intense battles and informally talked about how to survive the next regional administrator through more intensive guerrilla warfare. One guerrilla phrased his ambivalence in this way:

[The situation] created a dilemma, I think, on the part of the public servant. You are there to serve the RA [regional administrator]—you are there to serve the political appointee—and so forming these [guerrilla government] coalitions or whatever you want to call it—to resist what you perceive to be improper decisions or improper behavior—you are really treading on a very fine line there.

Many EPA staff concluded that one course of action available to them was simply not to protect political appointees. “Let them go forward and suffer the consequences,” said one EPA staff member. “Let them make some dumb decision and maybe that will shorten their careers.” To their surprise, no such tactics were needed—at least for the next three years.

Ernesta Barnes, 1983–1986: Guerrilla Activity Wanes

On June 8, 1983, Seattle banker Ernesta Barnes was appointed the next administrator of the Seattle Regional Office by newly appointed, returning EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus. She said that the appointment was a “great honor” and emphasized that her skill was working with people (UPI, June 8, 1983). Environmentalists were “wary.” Before she worked at the Seattle Trust and Savings Bank, Barnes was director of public service for the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (METRO), which operated the county transit system and manages water quality for Seattle. Before that, Barnes was director of the budget for the University of Washington and a founder of the Sound Savings and Loan Association, a business organized and owned by women.

Ousted Director Reinstated

Ruckelshaus announced that he and his regional administrators would foster an “open process” with the public and would act “in the public interest” (UPI, June 9, 1983). Barnes herself announced that she would act as “vigorous[ly] as the existing laws allow” (UPI, June 8, 1983). By most accounts Barnes did just that, establishing herself as a model regional administrator. One of her first highly symbolic and savvy actions was to promote the former director of the Management Division, who had been fired by Spencer, to deputy regional administrator. This action immediately won her approval by career EPA employees. The new deputy regional administrator, a career EPA employee, described his view of his promotion:

And lo and behold she selected me for the job. I’m not certain why, but I think one of the reasons may have been that she felt that I had integrity in the way I handled the situation with the former regional administrator and I had credibility with the staff. So I wound up one station higher in the organization than I had ever aspired to before.

Barnes served as regional administrator for three years. Among the actions that stand out in her record of service are her successes in increasing the number of EPA staff in areas of critical concern in the Northwest (UPI, December 13, 1984) and in greatly improving morale in the agency. She never hesitated to defend EPA staff when she thought they were right, maintaining, often under fire, that they acted “firmly and responsibly in correcting problems” (UPI, August 23, 1984). She reversed John Spencer’s previous approval of wastewater treatment exemptions for the two Alaska pulp mills (UPI, September 19, 1984).4 She campaigned vigorously to make the American people realize the economic impact of pollution (UPI, August 11, 1984),5 penalized local governments that failed to follow en­vironmental laws (UPI, August 15, 1983; September 19, 1983; July 25, 1984; September 5, 1984; September 12, 1984; February 22, 1985), and did not hesitate to criticize inadequate state pollution abatement programs (BNA Environment Reporter, October 21, 1983).

Barnes Gets Tough on Pollution

Barnes fostered a get-tough policy on cleaning up Puget Sound, cracking down on nonpoint sources of pollution (BNA Environment Reporter, August 23, 1985), forcing sewage treatment plants to upgrade, denying requests for waivers of pollution laws (UPI, August 8, 1984), and declaring, “How can anyone not want to clean up Puget Sound?” (Turner 1984) and “I don’t feel awkward about defending the Clean Water Act” (Stanfield 1985). She forged alliances with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to strengthen EPA enforcement efforts (Green 1985) and with states to regulate federal government polluters6 and boasted that her office had “embraced the law” (BNA Environment Reporter, November 1, 1985). She forced a settlement of the Western Processing plant problem that her predecessor had failed to address (UPI, June 19, 1984). She reprimanded the Defense Department for its mishandling of a shipment of transformers containing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) (UPI, March 15, 1984) and barred contractors who failed to comply with wage agreements from participating in projects funded by the EPA (UPI, January 16, 1984). Barnes, together with Ruckelshaus, launched an enormous public participation program to help determine whether the ASARCO plant in Tacoma should be shut down because of arsenic emissions (Kalikow 1984; Barringer 1983; UPI, September 9, 1983). One reporter wrote, “At the EPA, Regional Administrator Ernesta Barnes is given credit for pushing the agency past a time when it relied on a conciliatory attitude toward business—’take a polluter to lunch,’ as environmentalists dubbed it” (UPI, March 31, 1985).

Barnes Resigns

Barnes stepped down as Region 10 administrator in March 1986 and became president and chief executive officer of Pacific Celebration ‘89, a not-for-profit corporation created by Washington State to promote trade, tourism, and cultural exchange during the state’s centennial year of 1989. When she left the EPA, newspapers called her “highly respected.” One leader of the environmental group Friends of the Earth reported, “She’s been fair and we’ve had access to her” (UPI, November 29, 1984). Barnes’s deputy administrator was named acting regional administrator. Guerrilla activity was largely nonexistent in the EPA’s Seattle Regional Office.

Robie Russell, 1986–1990: Guerrilla Government Is Triggered Again

On June 17, 1986, a senior deputy attorney general from Idaho was named to succeed Ernesta Barnes, and guerrilla government emerged once again in the EPA Region 10 Office. Robie Russell previously had worked as acting chief of the Natural Resources Division at the attorney general’s office, where he had responsibilities for public lands, water resources, environmental protection, parks and recreation, fish and game, and agricultural issues. A former Republican Party county chairman, Russell also had worked as an attorney at the law firm of Bielenberg, Anderson and Walker, in Moscow, Idaho.

By all accounts, Robie Russell’s tenure at the EPA started out like Ernesta Barnes’s tenure. While there was some skepticism among EPA staff, the regulated industries, and the EPA, most supported him. Russell’s earliest press releases seemed to echo Barnes’s earliest sentiments. He talked about the “fine staff of dedicated people” at Region 10 and his preferred “management [style of] ... example and consensus.... When people are reaching their objectives they should have the opportunity to participate,” Russell said. The new administrator also said that he would not hesitate to undertake enforcement actions when necessary and expressed support for the new civil investigator that the regional office had just hired. “In the broadest sense of the word I’m an environmentalist,” he quipped (Gilbreath 1986).

Russell’s early actions as administrator also were reminiscent of Ernesta Barnes. In a strongly worded letter, he warned a local pollution authority that it could lose federal money if it did not strengthen its approach to controlling toxic discharges into Puget Sound (UPI, November 4, 1986). He filed legal action against nine companies accused of violating Superfund laws, warning them that they could not “simply walk away from the mess they helped create” (UPI, November 21, 1986). He urged states in the Northwest to forge a pact to deal with common hazardous waste challenges, chastising them for the NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) syndrome (Flash 1987) and inviting them to a regional conference to discuss hazardous waste issues with local governments, industry representatives, and environmentalists from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska (UPI, April 23, 1987).

The Honeymoon Ends

By the end of March 1987 (less than a year into his term as regional administer), however, Russell’s honeymoon was over. Local news media announced that a “veteran” engineer had quit his EPA job in anger, a disgusted branch chief was seeking to be “loaned” to another agency, and a resentful section supervisor had been involuntarily transferred to a different job (UPI, March 23, 1987). All alleged that Russell had taken too soft a stance on two important cases: proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and dredging at the navy port in Everett.

Russell Closes Door; Guerrilla Activity Increases

Russell began making his most important decisions in closed-door meetings, with only his division heads present. Most of the time, he did not even include his deputy administrator—the same career administrator who had served as deputy under Ernesta Barnes. The deputy responded by holding a series of clandestine, guerrilla-government-style meetings with the division heads before each of their meetings with Russell. The group would agree on a unified staff recommendation and then present it to Russell in the closed-door meeting. The deputy described the meetings:

I wasn’t invited to come to the meetings.... So the way we dealt with that was I would meet privately with the Division Directors before their meeting with the RA, and they would brief me on the issue, and I would tell my feelings about the issue and expect them to articulate a staff position.... That’s how I kept my oar in the water. We would often discuss what we needed to do in order to try to steer the RA back on a path that we felt ... we were most comfortable with. I felt pretty awkward in this situation, almost like I was being kind of conniving with the division directors in plotting a strategy behind his back....

The staff were also concerned that some who had performed the analyses forwarded to the administrator had been cut out of the decision-making process by Russell, that he deleted negative comments in reports before they were released to the public, and that those who dared to question the administrator were ostracized. A UPI report carried Russell’s response to the allegations:

The only difference is I’ve asked the division directors to get in there and be involved, rather than dealing on every issue direct. There haven’t been any big dramatic changes in the agency. I’ll never be Ernesta. I should be measured by my own performance. My management style isn’t inconsistent with the way the agency is set up. What the hell is the problem? There is no problem. You have people who have gotten used to doing things in a certain way, and now it’s being done differently. (UPI, March 23, 1987)

Some EPA staff concluded that all-out guerrilla warfare was inevitable.

Russell Reverses Himself; Guerrilla Activities Continue to Escalate

After publicly blasting a Department of the Interior environmental impact statement for not adequately analyzing the possible negative effects on wildlife and the environment of proposed oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (UPI, June 12, 1987; Inside Energy, June 15, 1987), Russell abruptly backed off and gave his support to the project. In June 1987, Russell had announced that an EPA analysis had concluded that the Interior Department document was “incomplete in its presentation of scientific data” and did not adequately address the majority of EPA’s concerns about the impact on air quality, demands on fresh­water supplies, and effects on marine fish populations (Inside Energy, June 15, 1987). One month later, in July 1987, Russell seemed to reverse himself when he testified before the U.S. House of Representatives panel considering the proposal that “EPA does not oppose the environmentally acceptable development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” (Dolan 1987; Woutat 1987). The action infuriated environmentalists and the EPA staff who worked on the EPA analysis.

In November 1987, Russell was criticized by the press, which had been tipped off by an EPA staff member, for spending too much time in his home state of Idaho. One news account concluded,

EPA records show that so far this year Robie G. Russell has spent all or part of 43 days on official travel in Idaho, three times the 13 days he has spent on official travel in Oregon, Alaska, and in Washington outside the EPA’s regional office in Seattle. (UPI, November 3, 1987)

Russell shrugged off the criticism explaining that he was “more in tune” with Idaho environmental issues and had been asked to the state more often than the other states in his region. When accused of using government money to fund private trips to Idaho, Russell said he “occasionally” mixed business with pleasure, but such actions were minor, such as having lunch with friends. The press report concluded that eight of Russell’s official trips to Idaho included weekends or vacation time. The same report quoted an environmentalist attorney in Idaho as saying, “I can say this: His travel back to Idaho hasn’t produced any great results with the environment” (UPI, November 3, 1987). EPA staff members went back to the inspector general.

Inspector General Investigates Russell

In July 1988 the EPA Inspector General’s Office released a twenty-seven-page report of an investigation into Russell’s travel habits. The report found no evidence of criminal or administrative wrongdoing. The IG determined that while Russell made sixteen trips to Idaho between July 10, 1986, and September 26, 1987, and twelve of those trips involved weekends off, Russell did not charge any personal expenses to the government. “Russell [as the agency’s ‘approving official’] was in a position to arrange his own travel schedule and if he made personal as well as official contacts on his own time during these trips, that was his affair,” the report concluded (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1988).

Again, some EPA staff members were stunned and disappointed.

In March 1989, Russell had refused to make public a draft EPA analysis concluding that Idaho potatoes might pose a health risk because the pesticide aldicarb is used on them. An EPA guerrilla leaked the information to the press. Upset citizens contacted the White House, the EPA, and state health and environment officials. Grocery stores around the world pulled potatoes from the shelves. Russell responded by making public a letter to Governor Andrus of Idaho, indicating that he shared the governor’s irritation about the unauthorized leak and emphasizing that there was not enough scientific evidence to conclude a negative health effect from eating potatoes that had been treated with the pesticide (UPI, March 31, 1989).

Russell’s Reappointment Protested

In June 1989, Russell was reappointed by the new EPA administrator, William Reilly, after George W. Bush became president. Within weeks, EPA employees sent a self-initiated, in-house survey slamming Russell to Reilly. Environmentalists from three states joined in, sending Reilly a letter calling for Russell’s ouster. The environmentalists’ letter, which received wide press coverage in the northwest United States, was signed by the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Oregon Natural Resources Council, the Washington Toxics Coalition, the Alaska Center for the Environment, and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Using data that had been supplied by EPA guerrillas, the letter fired off specific accusations: Russell spent three times as many days in Idaho as in other states in the region; he supported the navy’s 1987 decision to dispose of toxic dredge spoils in Puget Sound; he approved the filling of a wetland in Warrenton, Oregon, for a shopping mall over the objections of EPA staff; he approved less-stringent water pollution discharge limits than had been recommended by EPA staff for four sites in Washington State: Fort Lewis, Bangor, McChord Air Force Base, and Hanford. Three of the four sites had experienced groundwater contamination as a result of the administrator’s decision, the letter said (UPI, August 15, 1989).

In response to the criticism, Russell issued a defensive press release pointing out that he had the full support of EPA administrator Reilly. He emphasized that he had tried to “bring balance” to the administration of environmental laws and regulations. At the same time, he acknowledged his critics, saying, “I can see where some environmentalists might not care for my record. I can understand where some businessmen might not care for my record. And, there may be people within my own agency who also don’t agree with the course that I have followed” (UPI, August 15, 1989).

Russell Resigns

On January 29, 1990, after three and one-half years in the Seattle EPA Office, Robie Russell announced that he was resigning as regional administrator to consider a run for the U.S. Senate or for attorney general of Idaho. (In fact, he ended up doing neither but joined a Seattle law firm.) Many speculated that the real reason for Russell’s resignation was the retirement of his “godfather,” Sen. James McClure of Idaho. EPA career staff held parties to celebrate Russell’s departure.

Additional inspector general audits, prompted by complaints from EPA ­guerrillas, were under way, and according to one newspaper article, EPA “employees ... lined up outside the audit team’s door to provide it with information” (Dietrich 1990a). Complaints ranged from allegations that Russell purchased photos with EPA funds after he had announced his resignation, to charges that Russell or one of his immediate employees asked a local hotel to disguise food and bartender bills paid for with EPA funds as room rental (Wilson 1990),7 to devastating accusations that Russell tolerated violations of environmental laws. The Seattle Times summed up the concerns:

[S]ome EPA employees complained Russell failed to back tough enforcement, sabotaged cleanup efforts that would have hurt industry in his native Idaho and was the target of a still-unreleased audit critical of his performance.... Employees lobbied [EPA Administrator William] Reilly last year to replace Russell, starting an in-house survey with generally blistering comments about their boss, some of which were mailed to the Times.... “It has nothing to do with the fact he was a Reagan appointee,” one employee said commenting on staff unhappiness. “Reagan appointed Ernesta Barnes before Robie and she was an excellent administrator. We just felt there was a lack of objective decision-making in the agency.” (Wilson 1990)

Russell again defended his record by maintaining that he brought “badly needed balance” to the EPA. Environmentalists maintained that he had “stifled a lot of good effort and energy that ... [had] been coming up from his staff” and vowed to seek a replacement who “has a commitment to environmental preservation” (Wilson 1990).

Investigations Into Russell’s Tenure Continue

Two additional Inspector General’s Office reports of investigations into Russell’s actions while Region 10 administrator were issued after he left the agency. The first report gave him a symbolic slap on the wrist by charging him $110 for photo­graphs of himself ordered after he had announced his resignation. The report also supported staff allegations that Russell or one of his immediate employees had asked a local hotel to disguise food and bartender bills paid for with EPA funds as room rental. Concerned senior EPA staff members took up a collection and paid the $311 bill (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1990).

The second report was more scathing. It concluded that Russell had improperly blocked his own staff’s efforts to clean up a Superfund site in his home state of Idaho. A summary of the report concluded,

As a result, the smelter complex was allowed to deteriorate to the point that it was declared a public health hazard, ... prompt action was not taken to protect the public from contamination resulting from salvage operations, and partners in the Bunker Limited Partnership moved company assets to other corporations through stock and property transfers, which is expected to complicate attempts to recover cleanup costs. (Dietrich 1990b).

As a result, railroad ties covered with poisonous lead dust were sold throughout the Spokane area to nurseries for use in landscaping. Worse, eight years after the mine smelter was closed, eight of 275 children in the area still had unsafe levels of lead in their blood. (Lead causes nerve and blood disorders that can affect IQ and even cause death at times.) The Seattle Times concluded, “The blistering audit is the first official confirmation of EPA employee complaints that Russell discouraged enforcement of pollution regulations in his native Idaho (Dietrich 1990b). Moreover, the inspector general wrote in the summary accompanying the report, “Nearly every Region 10 employee who we interviewed about the Bunker Hill site expressed fear of retaliation [from Russell]” (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1990).

EPA guerrillas were ecstatic. Their guerrilla government activities had paid off. They had successfully stemmed the reign of terror started years earlier by John Spencer. Future regional administrators would know that they were a force to be reckoned with.

Questions to Ponder

The actions of government guerrillas generally, as well as the specific case of guerrilla government in the EPA’s Seattle regional office, pose many questions for those grappling with the study of ethics. This chapter concludes with questions to think about as you sort out what I call “the ethics of dissent” (O’Leary 2006).

1. Were the actions of the Seattle EPA staff justified? Why or why not?

2. Does subject area make a difference? If the guerrillas profiled in this chapter had been white supremacist zealots would it change your analysis of their ­actions?

3. If you think of the Reagan administration political appointees as the guerrillas, does this change your analysis of the case?

4. Was the Seattle EPA staff the embodiment of stubborn and misguided institutionalization—long-timers who represent a different culture from the new political leaders voted in by the American people?

5. Is there a difference ethically between a concerned public servant seeking out the support of an elected official and a concerned public servant seeking out the support of the media?

6. Contrast the management style of Ernesta Barnes to that of John Spencer and Robie Russell. Are there lessons that can be gleaned from such a comparison?

7. Should career public servants “just suck it up” (to quote one of my graduate students) and loyally follow new political appointees, even when they feel there is a lack of objective decision-making?

8. What were the other options available to the Seattle EPA staff?

9. If you are a government guerrilla, how do you really know when or if you are right? Where do you draw the line between sincere concern and arrogant hubris?

10. When do ends justify the means?


  1. . UPI wire service stories are available on-line at www.upi.com.

  2. All quotes are from 1995 interviews unless otherwise noted.

  3. In addition to Gorsuch and Spencer, from February 1, 1983, through May 21, 1983, the following EPA political appointees resigned or were fired: Rita Lavelle, assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response; Warren Wood, aide to Lavelle; Susan Baldyga, aide to Lavelle; Eugene Ingold, aide to Lavelle; John Horton, assistant administrator for administration; Mathew Novick, inspector general; John Hernandez, deputy administrator, acting administrator; Robert Perry, general counsel; John Todhunter, assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances; Paul Cahill, director, Office of Federal Activities; John Daniel, chief of staff; Steve Durham, administrator, Denver Regional Office; Richard Funkhouser, director, Office of International Activities; Frederic Eidsness Jr., assistant administrator for water; Kathleen Bennett, assistant administrator, air, noise and radiation; Peter Bibko, administrator Philadelphia Regional Office; Lester Sutton, administrator, Boston Regional Office; Michael Sawyer, aide to the administrator, Office of International Activities.

  4. The two mills were Alaska Pulp Corporation, in Sitka, and Louisiana Pacific, in Ketchikan.

  5. Barnes said publicly, in many speeches, “We have been led to assume that the basic costs of living are low. It’s going to be a hard lesson ... for a lot of Americans to learn that it costs a lot to dispose of our garbage [and] to address our pollution problems.”

  6. Perhaps the best example is her ordering joint action with the state of Washington against the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford site for violations of hazardous waste laws (UPI, February 6, 1986).

  7. Russell also was charged with reckless driving after he allegedly tried to run down two University of Idaho students working as traffic controllers when they refused him access to a VIP parking lot at a basketball game. Russell was the national president of the University of Idaho Boosters Club at the time


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Table 10.1. Résumé of a Government Guerrilla

1998–Present: Retired; Occasional adjunct


1992–1998: Special Assistant

Chair, Quality Improvement Board

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Washington, D.C.; Adjunct professor

1990–1992: Deputy Regional Administrator

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Chicago, Illinois

Recipient: Presidential Rank Award, Meritorious

Executive 1991
1989–1990: Visiting scholar, Indiana University

School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Bloomington, Indiana

Recipient, Undergraduate Adjunct Faculty of the

Year Award
1986–1989: Director, Environmental Services


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Seattle, Washington

1983–1986: Deputy Regional Administrator

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Seattle, Washington
1981–1983: Deputy Director, Environmental

Services Division

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Seattle, Washington

1980–1981: Director, Management Division

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Seattle, Washington
1979–1980: Chief, Resources Management Branch

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Seattle, Washington

1977–1979: Chief, Air Compliance Branch

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Seattle, Washington
1972–1977: Chief, Surveillance Branch

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Seattle, Washington
1971–1972: Microbiologist

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Seattle, Washington
1969–1971: Microbiologist

U.S. Department of the Interior

Portland, Oregon
1967–1969: Microbiologist

U.S. Department of the Interior

Pacific Northwest Water Laboratory

Corvallis, Oregon

1966–1967: Microbiologist

U.S. Department of the Interior Vessel Pollution


San Diego, California

1964–1966: Microbiologist

U.S. Public Health Service

Division of Water Supply and Pollution Control

Atlanta, Georgia

1961–1964: Biological Sciences Assistant

U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency

Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland
1960–1961: Jr. Microbiologist

State of California Department of Public Health

Berkeley, California

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