The state Senate is investigating Gov. Pete Wilson's appointee to Southern California's smog board for not disclosing his financial ties to a large chemical company.
When named to the South Coast Air Quality Management District board last August, Wayne Nastri did not reveal that his Orange County environmental consulting company is owned by American Vanguard Corp. A manufacturer of pesticides, Los Angeles-based American Vanguard has a major subsidiary regulated by the air board, which sets pollution limits for Southland businesses.
Tipped off by a caller last week, AQMD Chairman William Burke asked the Senate Rules Committee to investigate. The staff of the Senate committee, which is responsible for confirming the governor's AQMD appointee, will meet with Nastri today.
Burke had entrusted to Nastri a key role as chairman of the AQMD's technology committee, which is laying the groundwork for new pollution regulations for industries. Burke removed Nastri from the committee chairmanship Thursday, immediately upon confirming that American Vanguard owns his company.
"The fact that a majority interest in your company is held by a chemical manufacturer which is regulated by the district could, in my view, undermine public confidence in the objectivity of the agency's decisions," Burke wrote Nastri in a letter last week.
Nastri said Tuesday that he did not legally have to disclose the shareholders of his company to the AQMD, and he perceives no conflict of interest because American Vanguard "has no bearing at all" on how his company operates.
An environmental engineer, Nastri is president of Environmental Mediation Inc. of Newport Beach, a consulting company specializing in industrial waste cleanups.
"The issue of ownership in my view is irrelevant," Nastri said. "Why should it pose a conflict, when it [American Vanguard] is a separate business organization?"
Nastri called the controversy "a travesty" that is politically motivated.
"For the past two weeks I've had to defend myself on baseless issues instead of working on the real, important issues about air pollution," he said. "I would hope people would look at my record and judge me by that. Fairness and sound science has driven all of my decisions on the board."
As technology committee chairman, Nastri was leading the board's effort to tighten a rule requiring industrial plants in residential areas to cut emissions of cancer-causing chemicals.
Sources close to the investigation say the revelation about Nastri's parent company will probably be a legitimate reason to remove him from the air board. But they say that Burke has made an orchestrated attempt over the past few weeks to raise allegations about Nastri, possibly because the two disagree over some leadership issues at the AQMD.
There have been no public clashes between Burke, and Nastri, but the two disagree over the choice of an executive officer to lead the agency. Burke wants to name the AQMD's acting executive; Nastri voted with a majority of board members to mount a national search.
Burke, however, said he was not motivated by political disagreements when he revealed Nastri's conflict of interest to the Senate committee.
"That's a smoke screen," Burke said. "Don't you think a guy who is employed by a chemical manufacturer has an obligation to disclose that? As the allegations got out, I had no choice. I wasn't going to cover it up."
Nastri is viewed as a moderate on the board whose expertise is scientific and technical matters involving industrial pollution.
Environmental activists had supported Nastri's appointment. But now they will probably remain neutral because the financial issue makes him appear to have a pro-business conflict.
"It's more of an appearance of a conflict than an actual conflict. He's not acting like somebody who is representing an industrial client," said Sierra Club lobbyist V. John White. "He's harmless, from what we can tell. . . . It doesn't look like he deserves the opposition that he's getting."
The Nastri controversy continues a long string of hotly contested AQMD appointments made by Wilson. Critics say the governor has appointed people who are inappropriate for the board responsible for cleaning up the nation's worst air pollution.
Nastri's predecessor, entertainment promoter Cody Cluff, was removed from the board by the Senate committee last year mainly because of his role in firing the agency's chief executive. An earlier appointee, conservative broadcaster and attorney Hugh Hewitt, also failed to win confirmation.
The governor's office defended Nastri. Wilson spokesman Ron Low said Nastri from the beginning has disclosed his business dealings to the AQMD's legal counsel on a monthly basis.
"He has been upfront, honest, and has gone the extra mile to ensure that he cannot be accused of conflict of interest in any way, shape or form," Low said. "It's very clear in our eyes, crystal clear, that there is no conflict of interest or even a hint of conflict of interest. If anything, Mr. Nastri is overcautious in providing a complete and full disclosure."
A spokesman for the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, Gary Huckaby, said Nastri is not required under law to name his parent company on financial disclosure forms required of all public officials. Public officials must only reveal their primary sources of income.
Nastri, however, must disqualify himself from any board votes that would affect the parent corporation, Huckaby said.
American Vanguard owns Amvac Chemical Corp., which has several plants in the Los Angeles Basin that come under the jurisdiction of the AQMD's rules. Amvac has 162 permits from the AQMD for operations that pollute the air.
When appointed by Wilson, Nastri did not reveal the American Vanguard connection, but he did name a long list of industrial clients that pay him for consulting work.
"I've been very upfront about who I work with," Nastri said. "I knew I would be attacked for having industrial clients, but that's a great strength for me, because I've actually cleaned up [polluted] sites. I understand what good regulations are all about."