The Obama administration's nomination of Ignacia Moreno to head the environment division of the Department of Justice is moving quietly through the confirmation process, with hearings expected to begin in the next few weeks. Moreno has worked for the environment division before, during the Clinton administration. But her most recent job — as environmental counsel for General Electric — has raised eyebrows among Environmental Protection Agency attorneys. Before Moreno worked for GE, she spent five years defending other companies in pollution-related lawsuits.
Six EPA attorneys interviewed by ProPublica criticized the nomination, but asked that their names not be used in this story because they fear retribution. They said they doubt that anyone who has recently defended GE would be effective in the role.
For decades, the EPA has clashed with GE over the many toxic waste sites the company has been linked to through the Superfund program. For the past two years, Moreno has defended GE in some of these cases. Now, if her nomination is confirmed, she will be one of the government's top enforcement lawyers for the Superfund program and other environmental laws.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Moreno to be special assistant to Lois Schiffer, who then held the position that Moreno has been nominated for. In 1996, Moreno became principal counsel to Schiffer, who supports her nomination and told ProPublica that Moreno played an important role in dozens of environmental enforcement cases.
The EPA attorneys, however, argue that the job should not be filled by a lawyer who was comfortable defending the polluters that she would now have to prosecute.
In an e-mail to ProPublica, Moreno said she is not doing press interviews.
In a response to a questionnaire she recently filled out for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold her nomination hearings, Moreno said she would recuse herself from any case involving GE for the first two years of her tenure. The questionnaire also provides details about what she considers to be her most significant legal activities. She mentioned some of the cases she worked on at the Justice Department, including her assistance in mitigating cross-border pollution between Mexico and the United States. Only one of the legal activities listed in that section actually involved prosecuting polluters.
The questionnaire also lists civil rights cases Moreno worked on, including one in which she represented Mexican immigrants who sued their employer for unfair labor practices, and another in which she represented African-American female employees in a discrimination case against the National Archives.
Several attorneys outside of the EPA who are familiar with Moreno's career say her work on behalf of polluters doesn't mean that she won't make a strong enforcement lawyer. In fact, some argued that it might make her a better prosecutor.
Michael Steinberg, an attorney for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, represents alleged polluters in Superfund cases and once worked for the Justice Department's environment division.
"I think if you ask people that I worked with then, they will tell you I was extremely effective in litigating against the industry," Steinberg said. "I expect nothing less from Ignacia. She's a professional, and that's what professionals do."
When Moreno's nomination was announced in mid-May, she was actively defending GE against charges brought by the very division of the Justice Department that she has been appointed to lead.
In court documents filed in that case, the EPA said that GE owes the federal government nearly $10 million for the government's cleanup of 800 barrels of toxic waste that GE improperly disposed of at a Superfund site in New Hampshire.
GE, with the help of Moreno, argued that it was not responsible for the Superfund site because it thought it had sold the waste to a company that was going to reuse it to make paint. GE said it didn't know that the waste was instead being dumped, according to court filings.
"Nothing is ever cut and dried with a GE site," said RuthAnn Sherman, an EPA enforcement attorney working on that case. "They aggressively pursue every possible avenue and appeal everything."
A federal judge ruled against GE, but the company is now challenging the costs of the cleanup, Sherman said. Moreno withdrew from the case a week after her nomination was announced.
For the past nine years, GE has been locked in an even bigger court battle with the EPA and the Justice Department. GE argues that the part of the Superfund law that gives the EPA authority to force polluters to clean up their toxic waste is unconstitutional because it violates alleged polluters' right to due process. In legal filings, GE also argued that cleanup orders have an automatically negative impact on the company's brand name and financial status.