After Democrat Roy Cooper defeated Republican Governor Pat McCrory a year ago, state environmental secretary Donald van der Vaart gave up his office. After all, he was a McCrory appointee. But he didn't leave the agency. Instead he demoted himself and the department's No. 2 official, John Evans, to staff positions. The two men have since spoken out on policy issues, sometimes at odds with state policy. Now the Department of Environmental Quality has put the van der Vaart and Evans on paid "investigatory leave." WFAE's David Boraks joins "All Things Considered" host Mark Rumsey to talk about the situation.
RUMSEY: David, first, what does it mean that they're on "investigatory leave"?
BORAKS: It's a way for the state to temporarily remove employees from their jobs during a personnel investigation. To quote from the state employee manual:
"(It) does not constitute a disciplinary action. However, the information discovered during the investigation may be the basis of disciplinary action."
The new DEQ secretary, Michael Regan, issued a one sentence statement two weeks ago saying that van der Vaart and Evans had been placed on investigatory leave.
RUMSEY: Do we know why?
BORAKS: At this point, we have no specifics. State personnel rules say the process can be used investigate allegations of poor performance or bad conduct, and to avoid workplace disruption.
But here's the interesting background:
In September van der Vaart and Evans co-wrote an op-ed in a national environmental law journal arguing for repeal of a significant federal regulation on air quality. Basically, it's a rule that prevents companies from skirting clean air regulations by moving polluting factories from areas with bad air quality - and stricter rules - to areas with cleaner air - and less stringent rules. They argued it was a sort of "economic protectionism," designed to keep factories where they are and limit economic development in rural areas.
The article identified van der Vaart and Evans as DEQ employees. In fact, they're both now DEQ air quality section chiefs. But the DEQ quickly put out a statement saying they didn't speak for the department. DEQ said it supports the program in question, calling it a "cornerstone" of federal and state air quality programs.
RUMSEY: David, is this the first time that van der Vaart and Evans have spoken out about issues like these?
BORAKS: Good question. Actually, the two men have frequently co-authored journal articles, including while they led the DEQ. Often, as in the piece I just mentioned, they're arguing for loosening environmental regulations.
So that was in September. Then in October, President Trump's environmental secretary, Scott Pruitt, removed a group of scientists from the EPA's Science Advisory Board, and appointed van der Vaart - also a scientist - to the board.
DEQ says it doesn't support van der Vaart's participation on the board, and that he does not represent the department.
By the way, we've been unable to contact either of them to comment on this.
RUMSEY: What happens next?
BORAKS: Well Mark, DEQ isn't saying much about the case. It's a personnel matter so it's technically not a public process. But let's go back to the employee manual:
It says investigatory leave can last only 30 days, plus another 30 days - with permission of the state HR director.
So, they'll either be back in their jobs early in 2018 ... or out of work.