Nixon, Senate probe DNR over Lake Ozark E. coli
The department withheld a report on water quality in May.
Oct. 02, 2009
The governor has suspended a top state official for two weeks as his office and the state Senate investigate whether the Missouri Department of Natural Resources withheld a report on possible E. Coli contamination at one of the state's biggest tourist attractions.
Gov. Jay Nixon ordered DNR Director Mark Templeton to take two weeks unpaid leave during a conference call Wednesday and ordered the acting director to investigate the problems. Nixon said the department had failed to report water quality issues at state park beaches and at the Lake of the Ozarks.
"The mistakes that we discovered yesterday represent an utter failure by individuals within the department to uphold their duty to the public, and to me," Nixon said in a transcript of the call obtained by The Maneater.
In May, DNR delayed the release of a report showing high levels of E. Coli in the lake. That report was supposed to be published May 26 but was delayed four weeks and was released June 23. DNR Deputy Director Joe Bindbeutel later claimed responsibility for delaying the release.
Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said the governor's office did not know about the report until it became public. But former DNR spokeswoman Susanne Medley said she had informed Nixon aide Joe Mazur of the report May 29.
In a Springfield News-Leader story, Cardetti said he should have used "more exact words." Mazur said he did not share Medley's information because DNR had not sent him numerical data about the E. Coli.
On June 26, Mazur ordered Medley to only release a statement to media outlets near the lake about the report. Mazur said it is his office's policy to limit the release of information only to local media outlets.
Wednesday, Nixon said DNR erred again in September, with an incorrect report on park beach closures. Nixon said he learned Tuesday that Park Beach 1 at the lake was not closed after a May 18 test showing bacteria levels five times higher than allowed. He said DNR had told his office in September the beach had been closed in May.
"This is, quite simply, unconscionable," Nixon said. "It is nothing short of an outrage, and my reaction is sheer disappointment and disgust."
Bindbeutel's new job at the Administrative Hearing Commission might be in jeopardy. It requires Senate confirmation and Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said in a statement Thursday he was "holding" his support for Bindbeutel due to the scandal.
"Mr. Bindbeutel was a senior staff member at DNR when these alleged actions took place," Schaefer said in a statement. "I now need time to discuss with the Governor's office his intentions of continuing to support Bindbeutel's nomination."
Schaefer also sits on a Senate committee that opened an inquiry into DNR's actions in August.
Schaefer Chief of Staff Yancy Williams said the committee has not officially scheduled hearings on the delayed E. Coli report, but said Templeton's suspension might be Nixon's way of acknowledging the department has done something wrong.
"I think the suspension of Director Templeton clearly shows that the actions taken at the DNR were something governor is displeased with," Williams said. "If the committee does decide to schedule hearings, it would definitely be something that would come up."
Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said Bindbeutel's sudden move to the commission at the end of May was not meant to shield him from investigations into DNR. He said Nixon was not trying to protect the DNR from scrutiny.
"The governor made it clear back in July that this was unacceptable and must not happen again," Holste said.