Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Madison-based Midwest Environmental Advocates, said she is worried about potential bias by Assistant Attorney General Anna J. Wildeman in her new post because she previously represented the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association and large dairy farms.
But Justice Department spokesman Johnny Koremenos took issue with Wright’s contentions in an email.
He said the agency has taken steps to insulate Wildeman from potential conflicts, which include turning oversight of cases with legal conflicts to her deputy. Her past work, he said, does not mean an attorney is “incapable of working for DOJ altogether, or should not be promoted to management.”
Wildeman’s “expertise and experience with environmental matters is unquestioned and her appointment was one of the easiest for AG Schimel to make during his tenure,” he said.
Among its duties, the Justice Department prosecutes environmental cases referred by the DNR.
Since 2011 when Republicans took control of state government, there has been growing attention to regulation as the GOP has worked to ease some conservation rules and Democrats and environmental groups have complained that the changes have weakened protections.
Schimel, a Republican, promoted Wildeman to head the unit on Jan. 10. She is taking over the post held by David P. Ross, who joined the Trump administration as assistant administrator of the Office of Water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Schimel also appointed Bradley J. Motl as deputy director of the environmental unit. Motl has worked in the unit since 2012 and will manage cases where a potential conflict could exist, according to the department.
Wright said she was concerned how Wildeman would handle environmental matters, given Wildeman’s work for concentrated animal feeding operations, also known as CAFOs, and the dairy business association, which advocates on behalf of large farms.
“Anna Wildeman’s ties to the dairy business association and large industrial firms raises questions about potential bias in her representation of the Department of Natural Resources,” Wright said in an email.
“It’s concerning that attorney Wildeman will be in a position to advise DNR staff about how to proceed with permitting decisions and enforcement investigations, and the extent of DNR’s authority and duty to protect public health and the environment.”
But a former colleague of Wildeman’s, an attorney who hired her at the firm of Michael, Best & Friedrich, said the steps being taken by the Justice Department seem prudent.
“Having that sort of a screening mechanism in place sounds to me both sensible and appropriate and what I would expect the Justice Department to do,” said Linda Bochert, who is now retired from this firm.
Bochert worked at the DNR and Justice Department before going into private practice.
She said Wildeman provided “zealous representation” for her clients in the private sector. “I have every reason to believe that she will continue to do the same thing in representing her new client, the Department of Natural Resources,” Bochert said.
The operations of large dairy farms have become increasingly contentious in Wisconsin as the number and size of CAFOs — farms legally defined as having cattle populations of 700 adult animals or more — have grown.
Environmentalists have said the state is failing to do enough to regulate large farms and oversee potential to pollute groundwater and waterways.
Conservation groups, including Midwest Environmental Advocates, have challenged new and expanded CAFOs. And they have disagreed with Justice Department legal interpretations that have limited the authority of the DNR to impose conditions on large farms. Also, environmental groups have criticized Justice Department’s approach in environmental cases,which have dropped under Schimel. Schimel took office in 2015.
The industry has countered that large farms are heavily regulated — more so than smaller farms, which it says are often overlooked by critics.
Schimel’s office recently released results showing financial penalties in environmental enforcement cases totaled $1.45 million in 2017 — the highest in his first three years in office, but lower than the average of recent attorneys general.
His office said the decline is dictated by many factors, including the number of referrals the agency receives from the DNR, and longer-term factors, such as efforts by the DNR to resolve problems early on, avoiding the need to send cases to the attorney general.
Schimel addressed a dairy business association conference on Thursday in Madison.
“One of the most important things in my role as attorney general is making sure there is a stable and predictable legal and regulatory environment in Wisconsin,” he said in a video released by the association.
Schimel went on to say that “farmers have to endure an awful lot of permitting. They have to go through an awful lot to be able to produce the food that we all want to be on the tables for us in a healthy, nutritious and affordable way.
He went on to say, “And if we bury farmers in too much regulation, they can’t do business and they can’t feed the world like they do.”
Wildeman joined the Justice Department in October 2016 and was a policy counsel on environmental and agricultural issues for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from March 2015 to September 2016.
Previously, she worked at Michael Best from 2007 to 2015 and was a registered lobbyist for the dairy business association from 2009 to 2016, Wisconsin Ethics Commission records show.
Former DNR Secretary George Meyer, who also led the DNR’s enforcement division for 10 years and was secretary from 1993 to 2001, said Schimel should make public the protocol showing Wildeman is not involved in cases involving clients she represents, or those involving her husband, Meyer said in an email.
Wildeman’s husband, David Crass, is a lawyer at Michael Best who has represented large dairy farms and the dairy business association.
“It is important that the public have confidence that the important decisions made by (the Justice Department) regarding Wisconsin’s natural resources are made in an independent manner, free from actual and perceived conflicts of interest,” Meyer said.
Meyer is executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
Koremenos said the agency is not obligated to publicly detail the agency’s procedure for separating Wildeman from cases with a potential conflict.
“DOJ follows the law and our attorneys are bound by their ethical obligations and thus in any case where AAG Wildeman is required to be walled off, she will be. Period,” Koremenos said.