Decisions under a microscope

Times Staff Writer

Shortly before Stephen L. Johnson was sworn in by President Bush as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, he gave the president a towel symbolizing a New Testament passage in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. The towel, given to graduates of Johnson’s alma mater, a small evangelical college, symbolizes a life of Christian service.

Like the president, Johnson is a deeply religious man who says he relies on his faith in his work. Johnson prayed and spoke gratefully of early-morning prayer sessions held in his government office in a promotional video filmed there for an offshoot of a worldwide Christian ministry.

Tall, mild-mannered and bespectacled, Johnson, 56, is not a typical pick to be the nation’s senior environmental official, a post often held by high-profile politicians. Johnson is the first career agency scientist to assume the top post, having toiled in relative obscurity overseeing pesticides before moving up the ranks under Presidents Clinton and Bush.


By all accounts Johnson, who declined to be interviewed, works long hours. He is described as a likable, bright and humorous man who weighs all sides before making policy decisions on national environmental issues that affect all Americans.


Mounting criticism

William Kovacs, vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said: “This guy is pretty straight. He listens to both sides. Look, I criticize EPA more than anybody. I think he’s got a reputation for integrity. I think he’s one of the better administrators we’ve had. . . . He’s in a no-win position.”

Johnson has faced mounting criticism for appearing to ignore scientific data and allegedly succumbing to White House influence.

On Thursday, Johnson weathered harsh questions from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about why he denied California and more than a dozen other states the right to implement their own laws to cut greenhouse gases from vehicles, and whether political influence from the White House affected the decision. He has been sued by 16 governors on the issue. Johnson declined to discuss his conversations with Bush, and insists he made the decision independently.

Criticism of Johnson comes not just from Democratic officials and environmentalists. Scores of scientists, medical professionals and his own staff have protested decisions he made, after scientific review, to enact limits weaker than those recommended on life-threatening pollutants such as fine-particulate soot. They have lambasted his approval of the use of highly toxic pesticides, and for overseeing the closure of EPA libraries.

“I think people are incredibly disappointed in him. On a personal level, he’s very unpretentious, very friendly. But I would have expected him to have some moral courage. If he’s got this tremendous moral core, why is he making these decisions?” said one longtime EPA staff member.


Even a longtime friend said he and other faculty at Taylor University, the Indiana evangelical college where Johnson earned his bachelor of science degree in 1973, wonder about his work.

“I would never want to be a politician, but on some things, the environment, science, yes, we always have issues . . . where his decisions have not been as strong as we would have hoped,” said John Moore, a former dormitory mate who now is chair of the Taylor biology department.

Taylor, which was recently rated one of the country’s best colleges by U.S. News and World Report, offers a rigorous curriculum of evolution, genetics and environmental threats to the world’s rising population. Students must also sign a “life together covenant” to abstain from homosexuality, premarital sex, alcohol, smoking and nearly all dancing.

Some agency staff members say they are uncomfortable with Johnson bringing organized religion into the office, and some groups that do business with the agency condemn it.

“It’s a total violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. . . . Taxpayers were paying the heating bills or the air-conditioning bills when he filmed that,” Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based environmental group, said of the promotional video made in Johnson’s office. O’Donnell says for that reason and many others, “Stephen Johnson will go down as the worst administrator in EPA’s history.”


Unfazed by his faith

Others defended Johnson’s constitutional right to practice his religion, and said he hadn’t pressured subordinates on the subject. “His faith doesn’t bother me,” said one who saw the video on YouTube. “He’s actually a nice guy, and he’s under enormous pressures. . . . I do find it a bit ironic that he doesn’t seem to be able to dig deep and have a spine.”


Being head of EPA has never been easy. William K. Reilly, appointed by President Reagan to head the agency, likes to quote the first EPA administrator, appointed by President Nixon.

“I remember Bill Ruckelshaus said . . . that an EPA administrator gets two days in the sun, the day he’s announced and the day he leaves, and everything in between is rain.”


Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.