Copyright (c) 1997, Roanoke Times

DATE: Wednesday, January 22, 1997            TAG: 9701220069


Democrats said Tuesday they may refuse to confirm Gov. George Allen's appointment of Thomas Hopkins as director of Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality in the wake of Hopkins' "insufficient" response to a report critical of his agency's performance.

"I think there is a serious question of performance," said Fairfax Democrat Kenneth Plum, chairman of both the subcommittee on natural resources and the Nominations and Confirmations Committee.

Allen appointed Hopkins, of Roanoke, to head the agency in May. Hopkins must be confirmed by the General Assembly by Feb. 6.

Plum's remarks came after a three-hour hearing before the subcommittee Tuesday. The all-Democrat panel had summoned Hopkins and some of his top aides to respond to a state watchdog agency's report that DEQ is badly mismanaged and that enforcement of state environmental laws has fallen to a historic low.

Members of the subcommittee listened to presentations by Hopkins and his aides, March Bell, Harry Kelso and Harry Gregori and grilled them on a range of subjects - from the agency's enforcement techniques to a purloined memo leaked to legislators this month.

The experience, the lawmakers said afterward, was not illuminating.

"It sounded like efforts to confuse, efforts to redirect and maybe even mislead us about what these issues are about," Plum said.

"It was amazing," Hillsville Del. Tom Jackson said. "I mean, what are they doing over there? Their presentation was as disorganized and disoriented as I perceive their agency to be."

The session began with a speech by Hopkins, in which he complained that the critical report, issued in December by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, "simply did not address the accomplishments and the highlights of the people of DEQ" and had damaged employee morale.

"They only focused on the negative things - what we're doing wrong," he said.

Among the accomplishments JLARC failed to note, said Hopkins, were the agency's "national award-winning wastewater training program," "the construction loan program" and the "underground storage tank program."

As the hearing wore on, legislators became impatient with Hopkins. Exchanges grew testy. At one point, Roanoke Democrat Clifton "Chip" Woodrum accused DEQ Enforcement Director Kelso of threatening to target businesses in his district in retaliation for Woodrum's criticism.

"I think, Mr. Kelso, that you are getting a little threatening," Woodrum said. "But it doesn't scare me worth a toot. Try to answer the question."

On the subject of the leaked memo, which was addressed to Hopkins, DEQ Deputy Director Bell and a spokeswoman for the governor, Hopkins said he never saw it until after it appeared "in the media."

The memo, written by Michael McKenna, DEQ director of policy and planning, recommended a 30-day strategy of criticism, press leaks and harassment to discredit JLARC. McKenna resigned after it was publicized.

DEQ characterized the document as a "rogue memo" that was never taken seriously. Asked Tuesday about editorial changes marked on the text, Hopkins said: "It could have been Mr. McKenna's markings. I don't know."

Minutes later, however, Hopkins aide Kelso admitted that some of the marks were his. However, he said, he disregarded the document because he believed it was "stupid" and "repugnant."

"That is not my style. I don't do things like that. I'm no diplomat, I'm not a press guy, I'm no spinmaster," he said.

In the end, the subcommittee asked the officials to come up with a written response addressing JLARC's findings point by point.

"I feel like I'm in the middle of a bad movie," said Norfolk Del. William Robinson.

"I've got one report that is critical of a key agency, and I've got a piecemeal response. It seems to me that, in order for this to make any sense, we need to get an entire response. If there's a valid response, then for God's sake we ought to get it so we can read it."

LENGTH: Medium:   75 lines

by CNB