Former EPA Administrator calls out ‘rough and tumble’ Cuomo administration

Cuomo Under Fire

Judith Enck recounts her many threatening and toxic interactions with the Cuomo administration over the past decade

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Many of the interactions the federal EPA had with officials in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration were “rough and tumble” but none compare to the call former EPA administrator Judith Enck got on Jan. 11, 2011, at 10 minutes before midnight.

She was asleep when the phone rang. Her heart raced.

“I picked up the phone, which was in the other room, and was met with screaming and I had never met Howard Glaser before, but he just tore right into me and he was asking me to withdraw our document that EPA submitted to New York DEC,” Enck said.

Specifically, Enck said the EPA had filed comments for NYSDEC’s proposed hydrofracking rules and the Cuomo administration was not happy with them. Glaser was the governor’s director of state operations at the time before he departed in 2014.

Enck said she was shocked by his abusive language, but she made a mental note to keep Glaser on the phone until after midnight, when the comment period concluded.

She said he insisted that she call her boss or someone else in EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to rescind the comments and tell them that “I was effing up – his words not mine – the relationship between the Obama administration and the Cuomo administration.”

Enck said she was left with the impression that Cuomo was going to allow hydrofracking within the state, a controversial drilling technique for natural gas. She said it is not uncommon for the EPA to submit comments on state impact statements, and in this instance the EPA had flagged problems with how New York planned to protect drinking water and concerns over using fracking waste as a deicer for roads.

Enck said Glaser “kept berating me and saying ‘will you withdraw the comments tonight’ many, many times.”

Her accounts first appeared in the Albany Times Union.

She took detailed notes of the phone call and shared them with News 4 Investigates.

She wrote that it was hard to get a word in and “it was clear that the purpose of the call was to intimidate me.”

He threatened to take the fight to the media to “destroy” her, and used the F-word a lot, Enck wrote.

“He claimed that this is coming at the 11th hour and is throwing them a hard ball,” Enck’s notes read.

“I told him that I had informed DEC commissioner Joe Martens months ago that we intended to submit public comments and that I have met with his staff.”

The governor’s office responded, “We are not aware of that, but Howard has not worked here in seven years.”

Ultimately, Cuomo did ban hydrofracking, but only after a groundswell of grassroots activists convinced him to prohibit the drilling technique.

Enck is not the first public official to come forward with chilling accounts of their interactions with the Cuomo administration.

State Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Queens, was critical of Cuomo earlier this month in response to how his administration withheld information about Covid-19 deaths of nursing home residents. He was one of the first Democrats to call to revoke the governor’s emergency powers.

Kim said he got a call from Cuomo, alleging that he berated him for 10 minutes and threatened his career.

In addition, a former television journalist posted on Twitter that the Cuomo administration harassed and intimated her so much that she quit her job.

Lindsey Nielsen, a former TV reporter in Albany, wrote in a Tweet that “it was during one of the many accusatory and threatening phone calls I received by his staff members that I realized this behavior was never going to stop.”

Now, Cuomo is facing allegations of sexual harassment from three women, including two former aides, along with a federal investigation into how his administration mishandled the Covid-19 crisis with nursing homes.

On Wednesday, Cuomo said he was embarrassed by the allegations and came to realize that he did act in a way that made people uncomfortable.

“It was unintentional, and I truly and deeply apologize for it,” Cuomo said. “I feel awful about it and frankly I am embarrassed by it.”

But Enck’s accounts, which begin with that Glaser call in 2011 and continue through most of her time with the EPA until Obama’s second term ended, make it seem like this is typical behavior for members of Cuomo’s administration. If you disagree with them, it will often turn ugly.

“The Cuomo administration is very rough and tumble,” said Enck, who worked under the administrations of former governors Eliot Spitzer and David Patterson.

Spitzer resigned in the wake of a prostitution scandal and Patterson succeeded him, only to bow out of a run for a full term in 2010 when he was accused of witness tampering, soliciting gifts, and making false statements.

Enck said she never had interactions with the two governors she served or any of their staff members in the way the Cuomo administration operated.

“I’ve been doing environmental protection work for 35 years. I’ve never experienced a phone-call like the one I got 10 minutes to midnight by Howard Glaser. It was unprecedented,” Enck said.

In February 2014, Enck found herself in the crosshairs of the Cuomo administration again.

This time, Enck said the Cuomo administration wanted the EPA to sign off on liability waivers, often called “comfort letters”, so that any new tenants of the Kodak redevelopment in Rochester would not be held responsible for any issues that might arise with the contamination on site.

“Well, the state could have but there is no requirement that the EPA must do so,” Enck said.

“So we said no. They were very dissatisfied with that, they were very aggressive, they would regularly complain about the Region 2 office to the Washington, D.C., office. We had many in-person meetings and many phone calls and for some reason the governor’s Washington, D.C. staffperson got involved.”

Enck is referring to Alexander Cochran, a special counsel to Cuomo.

“I think the most notable thing is when Alexander Cochran says to the EPA staff ‘Now is the time to jump in and save the day before we go crazy. It’s about to get uncomfortable for everyone in a New York kinda way.”

She noted that at the bottom of his email was the slogan, “We work for the people. Performance. Integrity. Pride.”

“So, that was a little amusing, and he was a very spirited guy on the phone as well,” Enck said.

“We didn’t give them what they wanted. And they were quite unhappy.”

A Cuomo spokesman said that Cochran was “frustrated by the red tape that was preventing this project – which converted a blighted brownfield into an economic engine for the entire region, and history has been on our side.”  

“Eastman Business Park, thanks to this administration’s efforts  has grown from 28 companies in 2011 to over 110 companies with more than 6,600 jobs,” the spokesman said.

Another instance in which Enck had run-ins with the Cuomo administration is when it tried to use $700 million in federal clean water funds for work on the Tappan Zee Bridge. Enck said the EPA again jumped in to stop the scheme.

“That was a pretty aggressive back and forth. Very unpleasant. I should have known it wasn’t going to go well,” Enck said.

She alleges that the head of the Environmental Facilities Corporation had gone to mid-level EPA workers to sign off on the scheme and he then called her and said that he had already gotten the EPA’s blessings.

“So, he told me this story and I only said one word, I said really? And then he exploded. And then that got my attention. His reaction suggested to me that I should really dig into this and find out what’s going on.”

Enck said every governor has a bridge they need to replace and she did not want to set a precedent by allowing New York to misuse the clean water funds for bridge work.

Cuomo hired outside counsel to fight the EPA.

“They didn’t use the Attorney General’s Office,” she said.

“They used private counsel in Ohio, it cost taxpayers a lot of money and I knew they were going to lose the case so I reached out to them and said, look we can give you roughly 3 percent of that they were asking for. I said let’s just do that and call it a day and I won’t say anything publicly about it and you can call this a win and let’s move on unless you want to duke this out in court, which seemed like a waste of tax dollars for everyone. So, that’s how that got resolved.”

Then there is the Hoosick Falls drinking water contamination crisis, when Enck stepped in to inform the public that they were drinking water poisoned with PFOAs, when the Cuomo administration kept it under wraps for 18 months.

“I first heard that people in this upstate New York community of Hoosick Falls were drinking water with high levels of PFOA from a local official who called me wanting a couple million dollars from EPA to install carbon filtration on the public water supply. And I had never heard this,” Enck said.

Enck said she told the official to call the state, but he said that he already had and was told that they cannot provide the funds when there is a known polluter.

“My first call was to the New York State Health Department, and they knew that people were drinking contaminated water for 18 months and never told the public so I said you’ve got to tell the public, this is quite serious,” Enck said.

After many calls and conferences, Enck said she could not convince state officials to tell the public about the contaminated drinking water.

“I made back channel calls to the governor’s office and I said your state health department is really making a mistake here and you really need to intervene, and they wouldn’t. So, I went public,” she said.

Enck sent out an advisory to not drink the water. And she does not regret doing it, but it resulted in “very aggressive back and forth” with the Cuomo administration.

Hoosick Falls eventually was deemed a Superfund site and the water is now filtered before it reaches any faucets. All of this was breaking in the news around the same tie that Flint, Michigan officials were dealing with its water supply being contaminated by lead, which can cause serious developmental problems for children.

“Then like a switch went off and the state decided to try to blame the EPA for not dealing with the situation and that was totally inaccurate and unfair,” Enck said.

“They argued that the EPA kept changing its drinking water [standard] and the number did change but Hoosick Falls consistently violated the old numbers and the new numbers, so it was a rather unpleasant working relationship,” she said.

The governor’s office provided a prepared statement, that “We’re not the federal government and the Obama administration owed us nothing – if her supervisors asked her to do something different, that was their decision. The state was the entity that stepped in and fixed the water crisis and continues to be working with the community closely to monitor the water supply and hold accountable the corporations that caused this contamination in the first place.”  

 At the same time, Cuomo officials made calls to EPA headquarters to silence Enck, which eventually worked.

Enck said she was asked to refrain from making any public statements and not to give any public testimony during any public hearings in New York.

“It was very demoralizing, but I kept my eye on the ball which was protecting public health,” she said.

But she recalls one public hearing in Hoosick Falls by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Department of Health, when both commissioners clearly said this was a problem created by the EPA.

“That’s when I called the EPA headquarters and said this is untenable,” Enck said.

Her superiors gave her a reprieve and she countered the state’s misinformation campaign. She travelled to Hoosick Falls and had a community meeting attended by 800 people. Enck said she and her staff promised to answer every question, and the meeting did not end until 11 p.m.

Enck said the state did eventually “get its act together” and took care of the Hoosick Falls water supply problems, while also holding the polluters responsible.

“This climate of fear does not result in good decisions always for the people,” Enck said.

“I can tell you that on the Hoosick Falls issue, it just seemed like the state agencies were trying to protect their image rather than be blamed for something that they should have been blamed for. Look, they didn’t create the contamination, the polluters did, but not telling nursing mothers, for instance, that they were consuming contaminated drinking water? Those were the women in Hoosick Falls who were most upset about all of this, with medical reason.”

The notes, emails, and other documents that Enck shared with News 4 included legal definitions of harassment and other crimes. She said she realized through the research that a government official threatening another government official is a crime in Pennsylvania, but not in New York.

She urged state lawmakers to address this.

“My great hope is that whenever the Cuomo administration is over, I don’t know when that’s going to be, but we have to hit the reset button and do Democracy 2.0 and create a new political climate in Albany where people can disagree and have different approaches as long as everyone is respectful and working in the public interest,” Enck said.

On Wednesday, Cuomo made his first public appearance since the sexual harassment allegations surfaced, and he said he has no plans to resign from office.

Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here.

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