When she sat down to her first staff meeting with the Environment and Natural Resources Division, Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreo says she knew every face in the room from her seven-year stint at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration.
Moreno was sworn in before the ENRD’s 100th anniversary celebration in November and had her formal installation ceremony in March. She has oversight over ENRD’s work, which covers a variety of environmental issues from the impact of the border fence to the effect of sonar on whales to prosecuting violations of environmental regulations. ENRD was also named the most popular place to work in the federal government.
In an interview with Main Justice Moreno spoke about ENRD’s work with the EPA, the division’s 2010 budget, building relationships with environmental groups, and the “cracker jack” team which helps her manage the division’s case load. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Main Justice: Just to start out, could you talk a little bit about what your average day is like? How do you manage such a large portfolio of issues?
Ignacia Moreno: First of all my days could not be more interesting. I really have had the opportunity to work on issues that cut across all of the federal agencies and a lot of U.S. government interests that affect people’s lives. I can tell you that I never ever have a boring day. The way to manage such a broad scope is of course with a great team, and I have the good fortune to have both an amazing career team with a very deep bench, and I’ve also been able to bring in a cracker-jack political team to compliment the career team.
I have one career deputy who has been here for a long time, John Cruden I call him ‘Mr. Enforcement,’ Patrice Simms, Bob Dreher and Ethan Shenkman and together they really bring a broad scope of government experience, academia, public interest group [experience]. Ethan Shenkman was here before, Bob Dreher was at EPA, Patrice Simms was at EPA. All of these folks have been in really all of the different places where you’d want to look to for a political team. So it’s a great team, of course my chief of staff [Natalia Sorgente] who was an environmental defense lawyer with the division, and we’ve really been able to hit the ground running.
The first day I sat in this conference room at the head of the table and looked around and I knew everybody, and worked with the section chiefs for seven years when I was here during the Clinton administration, so it was really a wonderful moment to see that I was back home.
MJ: You had been here for seven years during the Clinton administration. What has changed between the year you left and when you came back?
IM: We do have a new and growing set of issues that really weren’t a focal point when I was here before, and one of those areas is we’re doing a lot more work on behalf of our client agencies in the area of military preparedness. We’re working with the Department of Homeland Security to defend some strategic border initiatives. There are lots of issues regarding the same disposal of obsolete chemical weapons. We’re very, very much focused on national security issues, homeland, defense, and I expect that we’re going to be doing an increasing amount of that work.
Another area that we had started doing work when I was here [before] is international issues. As you know, pollution doesn’t respect borders. There are a number of global issues — global pollution issues — that do have impact back here in the U.S. So we are partnering a lot more with our neighbors and our partners abroad. We are also focusing on new Lacey Act criminal enforcement actions to stop the illegal trafficking in protected species and in timber that comes to the United States in products. Increasingly, we’re going to be working with the government in China, our counterparts there, and in Brazil. The Attorney General recently visited Brazil and I’m going to be going later this summer to follow up on some cooperative enforcement initiatives.
The other area were we would like to meet is just a really large number of tribal trust cases. We have about 98 lawsuits which involve about 114 tribes, and the tribes allege mismanagement of trust funds and resources by the Department of the Interior. It is a priority of mine, and of Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli and [Interior Department] Solicitor General Hilary Tomkins, for us to work with tribal leaders to come up with a fair and expeditious solution in these cases. Those are three new areas that are different from when I was here. And then there’s a lot that is the same, we still have some of the cases from when I was last here.
MJ: You mentioned there’s more of a national security aspect to your job than there was during the Clinton administration. How do those issues effect environmental law?
IM: It comes up in a number of ways, for example, some strategic border initiatives such as the construction of the border fence. Our division would be involved in the element of the land acquisition and in the defense of takings cases. In fact, this year we have several trials. We are the component — we used to be called the Public Lands Division — that is involved in the acquisition of the land for the construction of the border fence. Our defense of challenges under the National Environmental Policy Act — NEPA — for example the Navy is doing exercises. …They have to prepare for conditions in the oceans, and to the extent that their exercises impact protected species such as whales. We have a case in the Supreme Court in which we defended the Navy’s use of mid-range, mid-frequency SONAR in its military preparedness exercises. There was a claim that we shouldn’t do that because of the impact on whales that had not been litigated. So it comes up, and NEPA is a statute that is 40-years-old this year that I do a lot of work under.
MJ: Your office defends the work of the government and also prosecutes and litigates environmental crimes. Is there a way to work proactively to make sure that the government is complying with environmental standards?
IM: I hope that one of the hallmarks of my tenure here is going to be that I am very proactive in having early consultations and often consulting with our client agencies to make sure that as they are taking significant federal actions that they are complying, for example, with NEPA. NEPA requires the agencies to take a hard look to make sure there are not going to be significant environmental effects and that the agency work to mitigate those effects. We could sit and wait for those complaints to come. But we really are engaged in working with our agencies, especially in this time of great growth and innovation so that they are complying with the law, complying with procedures [so] that [if] the agency decisions get challenged, the agencies will be in a more defensible position. We [can] say, ‘Yes, they took all the steps that were necessary.’
We also have agencies like the Defense Department or the Department of Energy which have historic or legacy pollution problems, they are a member of Superfund sites. So we work with them and we work with the EPA to make sure that to the extent that they must address their pollution issues, that they do so. We have a very vigorous Superfund enforcement program, and we will make sure that the polluter will pay, and when it’s the government, we work with our agencies to make sure that they meet their obligations as well.
But you bring up an important point – we have a whole side of our work that is defense, both on the pollution and natural resource side, and then we have a whole side of our work that’s the affirmative agenda, where I feel like we wear the white hat, and we do prosecute criminal cases and civil cases under a multiple number of statutes.
MJ: Do you think it is possible for there to be a shift in the balance — obviously it’s tough to anticipate how many cases you’ll have to defend — but will there be a more aggressive prosecutions that will shift the weight of what that division does?
IM: The way it works is that the defense cases come to us. We have an administration that is engaged in a lot of important issues, and EPA has any number of rules that are going to be coming out and we are already preparing to defend — because somebody will challenge some of these rules. So the cases come to us. We have about 7,500 cases on our docket right now, and it is almost an equal mix of defense and enforcement cases. We have plans to have vigorous and renewed enforcement. …Our folks are going to be working even harder than they work, because we’re not going to minimize our enforcement agenda given the defense challenges. We just balance it.
MJ: You had mentioned at your installation ceremony that you had met with some environmental groups who hadn’t been here [the Justice Department Building] in a number of years. Could you talk a bit about building relationships with these groups?
IM: Sure, my specific reference was to environmental justice leaders, and I was struck by what they said, that they hadn’t been in this building in nine years. It is important to me that I hear not only from the environmental justice community, but the environmental groups, I’ve had them here as well. In fact, it was one of the first things I did hear, reach out to environmental groups, environmentalists and the environmental justice community. I’ve had multiple meetings with my counterparts at client agencies to hear what it is they’re doing, what it is we can do to help.
And I will be meeting with some industry groups as well, as well as counterparts abroad. I’ve done this so that I can hear from these different interests ideas that they have for how we might focus our priorities, to hear what’s worked, and what hasn’t worked. I think we do our best in service of the American people when we hear from the American people and all of these different interests.
The pollution burdens that effect certain communities are very important to me. A lot of people call it environmental justice, that’s what I call it too, and the president and the Attorney General have also spoken about this. I am very focused with the team here, both the career team and the political team, to see how we can make environmental justice a reality in this country. I personally worked on environmental justice guidelines the last time that I was here and I came back thinking I really want to work on cases. So with EPA, we’ve been engaged in a dialogue to see how we focus the resources, what cases we bring, to match up with the priorities that EPA has articulated.
MJ: One of the early criticisms that environmental groups brought up during the nomination process was your work with GE [General Electric], but there hasn’t been much criticism since. Do you think your time at GE brought you experience that helps in your role here?
IM: I will say that all of my experience has helped me. It’s really amazing how at some point in the day I’ll think ‘I’m glad I did that.’ There’s no question the seven years I spent here were invaluable to me, and the time that I spent at GE as well as in the private sector, again, I consider those assets. I really do have a 360-degree view that is very helpful in my thinking about how things will play out and how best to meet some of the challenges. I couldn’t be more committed, and I intend to have a very strong enforcement program.
MJ: Under the budget request for next year, the division requests money for tribal trust litigation and criminal and civil enforcement. What are some of the things you hope to do in those areas?
IM: Well in the tribal trust cases, we do have as I mentioned earlier a very large docket of cases and it’s not just the number, the cases are highly, highly complex. We do have a need for resources to meet the litigation demands that are brought by those cases. I’m hoping that we will be able to, in parallel, engage in a settlement process with tribal leaders. We have already done some outreach to begin that process. These cases will take some time, even in an expedited process to resolve, so the additional resources are going to help us be on both of those tracks.
On the other side of the house, we are looking at opportunities to bring affirmative cases. We also litigate to protect tribal sovereignty and tribal resources and to resolve some of the cases through settlement or litigation if we can’t settle, than we can rededicate some of those resources. But right now, we are thinking that we are going to need to just engage at that additional level on those cases.
On the criminal level and on the civil enforcement side, we have very large cases under the new source of review provisions of the Clean Air Act. Again, very complex cases, but if you’ve seen some of our more recent press, we are achieving some settlements, and those settlements come from vigorous enforcement efforts, they’re born from those activities. EPA is looking to expand into new sectors, from the coal fire power plant sector where a lot of the litigation has been to the cement industry and glass manufacturing…. There are going to be any number of — already ongoing but more — Clean Water Act enforcement, including to address treasured waters like the Chesapeake Bay right in our backyard.
On the criminal side, I mentioned earlier the Lacey Act, illegal trafficking in wildlife, flora and fauna, we are doing a lot more work in that regard. I’ve started meeting with U.S. Attorneys across the country, and I’m smiling because I’ve been doing a lot of traveling and will be doing a lot more to partner with them and help establish some important task forces. These are local, federal, state law enforcement officers investigators and some of the lawyers. We launched the task force, and I learned that we got five referrals coming out of that meeting. Important referrals, they’ll address really egregious problems in those communities that we need to protect. So I’m excited about those efforts. We get the cases from EPA and EPA is raring to go.
MJ: Any cases that you are especially proud of or any trends you see emerging?
IM: I’m very excited about what we’re going to do in environmental justice and in the international program and the tribal issues. These are things that are already in the works, you’ve already been seeing some of them. Our criminal program as well, I think you’re going to be seeing more of that. I guess the thing that I see as most exciting every day is that I have this opportunity to come here and do this work.
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Ignacia S. Moreno, who was formally installed Friday as Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, announced her top leadership team.
From the Justice Department news release:
Natalia Sorgente, Chief of Staff and Counsel—Sorgente returns to ENRD to serve as counsel and chief of staff after a brief departure from the division. Sorgente served in the Environmental Defense Section as a trial attorney where she defended the United States’ environmental regulations, determinations and past practices in federal district and appellate courts. She has broad environmental law experience, including representing the United States in cases brought under all the major pollution control statutes. In her five years with the division, she received multiple awards in recognition of her outstanding work. Preceding her return to ENRD, she was a senior legal fellow at Alliance for Justice working with the Judicial Selection Project. After clerking for U.S. Judge Norma L. Shapiro, she began her career at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison in New York litigating high-profile civil and criminal matters. Sorgente holds degrees from New York University School of Law and Harvard College with honors.
Robert Dreher, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General— As a seasoned environmental lawyer, Dreher has extensive experience in conservation policy, environmental law and natural resources management. He has represented environmental organizations, federal agencies, tribes and businesses in a variety of environmental matters. Dreher previously served as senior vice president for Climate Change and Conservation Law and General Counsel of Defenders of Wildlife. Prior to this, he served as Deputy Executive Director of the Georgetown Environmental Law & Policy Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, and as deputy general counsel of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Earlier in his career, he was a staff and co-managing attorney of the Washington, D.C. office of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice). Representing tribes, government agencies, businesses and environmental groups in solo private practice, he served as counsel to the law firm Troutman Sanders LLC and as an associate at the Boston firm Hill & Barlow. He has taught federal natural resources law at The George Washington University Law School and at Georgetown University Law Center. Dreher received his J.D. from Yale Law School, a Masters in American Civilization from Brown University, and his undergraduate degree from Harvard College.
Dreher will oversee the Natural Resources and Wildlife and Marine Resources sections.
John Cruden, Deputy Assistant Attorney General—Cruden has served as a career Deputy Assistant Attorney General for ENRD since 1995. Prior to his role as deputy, he served as chief of the division’s environmental enforcement section and as special counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division. Cruden has extensive personal experience litigating complex environmental cases and has served as Acting Assistant Attorney General on multiple occasions. Before attending law school, he served in airborne, ranger and special forces units in Germany and Vietnam. After receiving his law degree, he clerked for the California Supreme Court and then attended the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Graduate Course where he was named the outstanding graduate. Subsequent military assignments included criminal prosecutor in Germany; chief of litigation branch, Europe; general counsel, Defense Nuclear Agency; and chief of administrative and civil law, Judge Advocate General’s School. His last assignment in the Pentagon was chief legislative counsel for the Army. Cruden is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, University of Santa Clara summa cum laude and University of Virginia with honors.
Cruden will oversee the Environmental Enforcement and Environmental Crimes sections.
Ethan G. Shenkman, Deputy Assistant Attorney General—Shenkman returns to the Justice Department where he had previously served for nine years. Most recently, Shenkman was a partner at the WilmerHale law firm, which he joined in 2004. He was a member of the Government and Regulatory Litigation Practice Group and worked closely with the Appellate and International Arbitration Practice Groups. His practice focused on a wide range of complex litigation, including international disputes, investment treaty arbitration, appellate advocacy, environmental law and Indian law. He began with the Justice Department as a Bristow Fellow in the Office of the Solicitor General in 1995. He then joined the ENRD Appellate Section through the Attorney General’s Honor Graduate program and served as counsel to then-Assistant Attorney General Lois Schiffer. From 2001 to 2004 he was a member of ENRD’s Law and Policy Section. Prior to joining the Justice Department, he clerked for U.S. Judge Paul V. Niemeyer in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Ethan earned his J.D. from the University of Virginia, School of Law, where he was Order of the Coif and Editor-in-Chief of the Virginia Law Review, and his B.A. from Yale University, summa cum laude.
Shenkman will oversee the Appellate and Indian Resources sections.
Patrice Simms, Deputy Assistant Attorney General— Simms joins ENRD as an accomplished environmental attorney most recently serving on the law faculty at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. Prior to this, Mr. Simms served as a government attorney and as an environmental advocate in many high-profile environmental cases, and other matters involving important legal, technical and policy issues. His experience includes more than five years as a staff attorney in EPA’s Office of General Counsel, and stints as a legal counsel to the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board and as a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. His career has focused on issues regarding the implementation and enforcement of the Clean Air Act and issues related to clean water, solid waste, public health, climate change and environmental justice. Mr. Simms has received many professional awards, including the EPA Office of General Counsel Award for Excellence. In 2009, he was elected to serve on the Steering Committee for the D.C. Bar’s Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Section. Mr. Simms is a graduate of Howard University School of Law.
Simms will oversee the Land Acquisition and Environmental Defense Sections.
Crystal Brown, Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General— Brown comes to ENRD after recently serving at the White House as deputy associate counsel for presidential personnel. Prior to this, she served as an associate at the law firm of Bryan Cave LLP where her practice focused on a range of commercial litigation and white collar defense and investigation matters. Earlier in her career, she served as a judicial law clerk to U.S. Judge Clifford Scott Green in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In 2008, Brown was inducted into Temple University’s Gallery of Success as an alumna of the Beasley School of Law. She received her J.D. from Temple University Beasley School of Law, where she was symposium editor of its Political and Civil Rights Law Review. Brown received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Duke University.
Jeffrey Prieto, Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General— For ten years, Mr. Prieto has served as a trial attorney with ENRD’s Environmental Enforcement Section, prosecuting civil actions on behalf of federal agencies under all major federal environmental laws. He has served as co-counsel on major Clean Air Act civil enforcement cases including coal-fired power plant litigation. He also has served as lead attorney of a litigation team in Superfund enforcement cases, representing multiple federal agencies. Prieto’s positions have included attorney-advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency, White House Fellow and environmental planner. Mr. Prieto received his J.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles and a Master’s of Public Affairs/Urban and Regional Planning from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
Paulo Palugod, Special Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General—Palugod joins the department from American University, Washington College of Law, where he will receive his J.D. in May. He received a B.A. in Economics from Bucknell University, cum laude.
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The new head of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division pledged that the nation’s top polluters will pay for the damage they caused to the environment and said she would work with other countries to protect air and water quality.
Ignacia S. Moreno, who has been on the job since November, was formally installed during a ceremony in the Great Hall of the Justice Department’s Robert F. Kennedy building on Friday afternoon.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli were on hand for the ceremony.
Perrelli praised Moreno’s work thus far and said she had a deep commitment to environmental law and a broad understanding of the entirety of the division’s work.
Holder, who was given a standing ovation when introduced by Perrelli, thanked the audience, joking that he should “perhaps should stop here” and that the support was “especially nice today” – an allusion to news reports earlier Friday that the White House might overrule the Justice Department’s decision to try alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian courts.
Moreno, said Holder, “has a deep understanding of regional concerns, she also brings a global perspective to addressing environmental challenges.”
“Under her leadership, I know our Environment and Natural Resources Division will redouble its efforts to ensure that our most vulnerable communities are not disproportionately burdened by environmental and health hazards, and that these communities will be encouraged to participate in making local environmental decisions,” he said.
U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina was on hand to administer Moreno’s oath of office and praised Moreno’s past work, calling the swearing in a proud day for the Hispanic community.
In her speech, Moreno recalled coming to the U.S. from Colombia, where she was born and lived until age six, and landing at JFK airport in New York in the middle of a major snowstorm. “I remember, vividly, the excitement that I felt when I saw snow for the first time. I can’t say I’ve felt the same way recently,” she joked of D.C.’s recent blizzard.
Moreno said she saw her parents work their way towards the American dream.
“We came to America with great hope, and our experience has greatly exceeded out expectations,” Moreno said. “For this reason I have always asked, ‘What can I give back for all that I have received?’ For me, the answer has always been public service, whether through my work at the Department of Justice or through my pro-bono activities. And friends, let me tell you there is no better place to give back than at the United States Department of Justice and in the Environment and Natural Resources Division.”
Moreno, who during the confirmation process had been criticized by some Environmental Protection Agency attorneys because of her work at General Electric, reaffirmed her commitment to environmental justice.
“In appropriate cases, we will work with companies who step up to the plate. But let me be clear [...] polluters will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” Moreno said.
Taking a swipe at the George W. Bush administration’s enforcement of environmental laws, Moreno noted that when she recently met with key leaders of the environmental justice community, “they told me that they had not been in this building in nine years. That was our first meeting, and it will not be our last.”
The ceremony ended with a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” as sung by The Nine Inch Margins, a group made up of lawyers in the appellate section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Video embedded below.
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The Justice Department’s new Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division was sworn in Monday as the division celebrated its centennial.
Ignacia Moreno, who was confirmed on Nov. 5, later appeared at a ENRD celebration with Attorney General Eric Holder and former acting Assistant Attorney General John Cruden.
The event at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center brought together several hundred ENRD employees and alumni to celebrate the history of the division, which was retold through a multimedia presentation by Georgetown University Law Center Professor Richard Lazarus, formerly an attorney with the division.
Edwin Kneedler, Career Deputy Solicitor General, received the Muskie-Chafee Award. That award honors a current or former federal employee who has made significant contributions to protecting the environment, public lands and natural resources, and fulfilling the nation’s responsibilities to Native Americans, according to the Justice Department.
In September, Moreno defended her experience as a counsel for General Electric Co., which has been at odds with environmental groups. Some Environmental Protection Agency attorneys had expressed concerns about Moreno because of her work at GE, according to a report by ProPublica, a non-profit investigative web site.
Andrew Ramonas contributed to this story.