To the chagrin of some environmentalists, Joel Miele, the
Giuliani administration’s confrontational Department of Environmental
Protection commissioner, has been quietly lobbying to keep his job when
Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg takes office on Jan. 1, according to
administration sources. Those efforts have set off alarm bells in the
environmental community, which is preparing a major effort to block Mr. Miele’s
potential reappointment. The controversy over the usually obscure agency could
prove to be Mr. Bloomberg’s first major political battle.
A swaggering Queens Republican who packs a pistol in an ankle
holster, Mr. Miele gained notoriety for claiming under oath that his agency was
about to deploy a submarine to check for leakage in one of the city’s
aqueducts-although the submarine didn’t exist at the time.
Mr. Miele’s management style won him few friends in the
environmental movement. But it has been more than just a personal feud:
Environmentalists have long charged that he has not been a proper steward of
the city’s endangered watershed. Mr. Miele admitted in court earlier this year
that his agency allowed the release of toxic mercury into an Ulster County
reservoir for two years. The D.E.P. entered a guilty plea on two felony counts
of violating the federal Clean Water Act-leading a federal court to fine the
Mr. Miele’s tenure has even attracted the attention of Manhattan
District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Jeff Odefey, project attorney for
Riverkeeper Inc., an environmental group which has regularly battled Mr. Miele,
told The Observer that he’d met with
Mr. Morgenthau’s investigators last spring to urge them to investigate his
claims about the phantom submarine-claims that were made in sworn testimony.
Mr. Odefey said the investigators assured him that “the allegations were under
review and investigation.”
Barbara Thompson, a spokesman for Mr. Morgenthau, said: “The
matter is still under review.” A spokesman for Mr. Miele declined comment.
Despite all this, there is reason to believe that Mr. Miele has a
good shot at being reappointed. Indeed, a recent report in Crain’s New York Business identified Mr. Miele as one of the
commissioners most likely to survive the transition.
A spokesman for the D.E.P. declined to comment on Mr. Miele’s
potential return. Ed Skyler, a Bloomberg spokesman, would only say: “There are
obviously some very qualified people who have worked in the Giuliani
administration, and we encourage anyone that’s interested in staying to apply.”
According to D.E.P. sources, the commissioner has lobbied fellow
members of the Giuliani administration to help persuade the Bloomberg team to
keep him on. Mr. Miele recently got a call from a Bloomberg adviser who told
him that the Mayor-elect’s team was considering keeping him for a transitional
period of a year, one source said.
Unlike the names of other commissioners who have been identified
as possible holdovers, Mr. Miele is a controversial character who, if
appointed, would place the Bloomberg administration on a collision course with
environmentalists. Indeed, environmentalists have been trying to counter Mr.
Miele’s lobbying effort with an offensive of their own, privately warning
Bloomberg transition-team members that Mr. Miele’s reappointment would result
in nothing short of protracted political war.
“It is time for a change,” said Eric Goldstein, head of the
Natural Resources Defense Council. “The feeling in the environmental community
is that, with the new spirit that Mayor-elect Bloomberg is bringing in, he
would be best served by fresh leadership at an agency that has had its fair
share of challenges in recent years. The city is entitled to a commissioner who
is a committed steward of our air and drinking water.”
“The reappointment of Commissioner Miele would be a declaration
of war by Mayor Bloomberg upon New York’s environmental community,” added
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper Inc. “The
agency has experienced more mismanagement and corruption under his tenure than
at any other time since the Bureau of Water Supply was managed by Boss Tweed in
Charles Sturcken, Mr. Miele’s chief of staff, dismissed the
criticism. “Obviously, they’re posturing to influence the next administration,”
he said. “That’s standard for all interest groups. That’s just what they do.”
Mr. Sturcken added that Mr. Miele was a pleasure to work for.
“Whatever people want to say about him, positive or negative,” Mr. Sturcken
said, “he’s a good commissioner, and he’s a person the government is served
Despite the looming political battle over Mr. Miele, an extension
of his tenure would not be entirely surprising. Security issues have become
paramount for city agencies across the board in the wake of the Sept. 11
attacks. The Bloomberg transition team may decide that this would be an
inopportune time to hand over responsibility for safeguarding the city’s water
supply to a newcomer. An ongoing drought warning, brought on by scant rain this
fall, makes the task of taking over the agency even more daunting. Mr. Miele,
who was appointed D.E.P. commissioner five years ago, has a background in
engineering and construction that has earned him a reputation as a competent
technician who is equipped to deal with such nuts-and-bolts problems.
Mr. Miele has always enjoyed good standing within the Giuliani
administration, both because of his loyalty to the Mayor and his ability to get
along with the businesses regulated by the agency.
Still, environmentalists have no shortage of gripes about Mr.
Miele. For one thing, they say, he’s too dismissive of concerns about the
quality and reliability of the city’s water supply. Once, during an interview
with Mr. Miele conducted in his office by WNBC, reporter Tim Minton asked about
the safety of a water tunnel that connects upstate to the city.
“Can you assure New Yorkers that [the tunnel] will not collapse
tomorrow, next week or next month?” Mr. Minton asked.
“I don’t think I can do that,” Mr. Miele replied. “But I also
can’t guarantee that you’ll make it out of my office alive without slipping on
a banana peel and breaking your neck.” (Mr. Minton returned to his office
In another episode-one that attracted virtually no attention in
the press-Mr. Miele pled guilty in August to two criminal violations of the
U.S. Clean Water Act. He admitted in federal court that his agency, charged
with defending the water supply, had contaminated the water with mercury and
PCB’s. The D.E.P. was fined $50,000 as part of a plea-bargain arrangement that
also placed the agency on probation and called for an independent monitor of
its activities. In a letter to the court requesting the plea agreement, the
U.S. Attorney described the D.E.P. as an agency where “environmental laws
[have] not been a priority among those at DEP entrusted with running the water
Then there’s the matter of Mr. Morgenthau. In the spring of 2000,
Mr. Miele, whose agency was being sued by a D.E.P. whistleblower, testified
under oath in U.S. District Court that his agency had “a contract to build” an
underwater vehicle that would gauge the severity of a potentially disastrous
leak in the Delaware Aqueduct. But when the New York Post subsequently contacted
the company that was supposed to build the machine, the paper found that the
contract didn’t exist. (The underwater vehicle is currently under design and is
scheduled to be operational by October 2002.) Environmentalists had warned that
the leak needed urgent attention because it could cause the collapse of a key
water artery, leaving the city in a water crisis.
Armed with proof of what they
believed was perjury by Mr. Miele, attorneys for Riverkeeper invoked an obscure
section of the City Charter that states: “Any officer or employee of the city
or of any city agency who shall knowingly make a false or deceptive report or
statement in the course of duty shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon
conviction, forfeit such office or employment.” The attorneys took their case
to Mr. Morgenthau’s investigators, who are still reviewing the claim.