Abruptly dismissed from office Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency’s top official for California and the Pacific Southwest speculated he was terminated because of his congenial relationship with Democratic politicians.
In a statement released Thursday, and provided to The Times, former Trump administration appointee Mike Stoker said, “last time I checked, the EPA’s mission to protect the public health and environment is not a partisan issue … at least it never has been for me.”
Stoker was appointed head of Region 9, which includes California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, the Pacific Island Territories and 148 American Indian tribes, in May 2018.
On Wednesday at 8 a.m., he received a phone call at home from EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson and Associate Deputy Administrator Doug Benevento informing him of his immediate termination.
When he asked for a justification, “there was a long pause” and he was told it wasn’t personal, Stoker said. Within minutes, his phone and laptop were disabled.
A spokesman for the EPA would not comment on the reasons for Stoker’s dismissal.
Stoker said three weeks ago he was warned by a senior EPA official that “it wasn’t going unnoticed how many Democrat members in Congress were commending me for the job I was doing.”
Stoker noted that several Democratic politicians had praised his work, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). He pointed to his work on the cleanup of Hunters Point in San Francisco, addressing transboundary sewage in the San Diego-Tijuana corridor, and his focus on transuranium waste in Arizona and coral reefs in Hawaii.
In addition to his friendliness with Democrats, Stoker suggested there could have been other reasons for his dismissal. He said there were “a lot of specific situations that someday I will reveal but that day will not occur while the president is still in office. I was appointed by the president and I remain loyal to the president.”
In an email sent to Region 9 staff members Wednesday afternoon, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote, “I would like to thank Mike Stoker for his service to the EPA.”
He then added, “I wish him and his family the best in their future endeavors.”
Deborah Jordan, the region’s deputy administrator, will take over as acting head. She has been deputy administrator since 2016. Before that, she worked on Clean Air Act regulatory matters for EPA headquarters and Region 9.
Stoker’s tenure was mired in controversy. In 2018, a few months after he was appointed regional administrator, a “hotline” complaint was filed with the EPA’s inspector general regarding his infrequent visits to the region’s main office in San Francisco.
In March 2019, the EPA’s inspector general issued a “management alert.” It showed that Stoker spent only 20% of his time in San Francisco, where 90% of the staff is based.
Three weeks later, according to reports from E&E News, Jackson instituted a yearlong “pilot program,” allowing Stoker to switch his duty base from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Stoker was an avid Trump supporter, and is rumored to be the mastermind of the “Lock her up!” chant that was shouted at countless rallies in opposition of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Stoker confirmed he was the likely provenance of the rallying cry, noting in 2016 he spurred California delegates to yell it on the floor during Gov. Chris Christie’s speech at the Republican National Convention.
“I never heard it said before that,” he said.
Jeff Ruch, director of the Pacific region of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy organization for government employees working on environmental issues said that it was unlikely Stoker would be replaced by a permanent regional head, “given the long time it took to fill this regional administrator slot and the tendency of the current administration to leave top positions vacant.”
He added that while the lack of permanent leadership was problematic in some area of government, “that will not be the case here as Stoker’s short tenure was undistinguished by any concrete accomplishment.”
Serge Dedina, mayor of Imperial Beach, however, said Stoker was an environmental champion for his city and the cleanup of the Tijuana River.
“From Day One, he made clear it [the river] was a priority,” Dedina said, describing Stoker as a “beach guy” who had an appreciation for the coastline and estuaries of Southern California. “I’ll always be grateful to him.”
Before taking the regional administrator job, Stoker served as director of government affairs for UnitedAg, one of California’s largest agricultural associations. According to his EPA biography, he was also a member of Santa Barbara County’s Board of Supervisors from 1986-1994, chairman of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board from 1995-2000, and California deputy secretary of state from 2000-2002.
In a statement, San Diego congressman Peters said he was surprised by Stoker’s sudden removal, and urged the administration to quickly appoint someone “who has a substantial understanding of the problems our region faces.”