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Judging from his job description as a solid-waste engineer and investigator, Environmental Protection Agency bureaucrat Hugh Kaufman is the kind of guy who should have been spending his weekend puttering around his house and getting ready for another week of reading arcana-laden environmental reports. But when the phone rang one Saturday morning in 1990, the retired rodeo cowboy on the other end wasn’t calling to pitch your typical Washingtonian weekend getaway. P.D. Jones called because the state of Nebraska had decided to put a nuclear waste dump in his tiny hometown of Nora (pop. 27). Kaufman, Jones had heard, had a fairly peculiar hobby: A cubicle-dwelling bureaucrat by day, he liked to militate at the grass roots on his own time.
“So Jones called up Washington, D.C., information and got my phone number,” explains Kaufman. “And I get this call. He says, ‘I’ve read about you,’ in this sort of drawl. He explained the case. So I said, ‘I’ll come out there; we might be able to have a little fun, Mr. Jones.’ I went out there and met all the townspeople at the old grain elevator. We talked about putting together a team and kicking a little butt. And we had a blast.”
In the process of getting in position for his free-lance fight against the nuclear dump, Kaufman achieved what was undoubtedly a first for an EPA official: He was elected to the Nora town council. “The law in Nebraska required a monitoring committee, and I was now
a local town official who could then participate in
the monitoring committee and have a little fun,” explains Kaufman.
The fun in Nebraska came pretty cheap. In order to be an official resident of the state, you have to either live there or demonstrate habitual return. “So I bought a cemetery plot,” says Kaufman. “Because there ain’t nothing more habitually returning than a cemetery plot!” The proposed dump plan was defeated. Kaufman exited the town council, but he still owns the grave.
He plans on raising a little more hell before he goes back for a permanent visit. In the past, Kaufman has gone to the wall against toxic waste in East Liverpool, Ohio. He has teamed up with pollution-weary locals to fight the powers that be in rural New Hampshire. He has spoken out on national television against sewage sludge in Texas and in the process gotten himself sued for half a million dollars.
Though he works for the EPA, the whistle-blower and careerlong gadfly spends most of his time attacking…his very own agency. In the process, he has become a hero to a lot of environmentalists and the most hated man at the EPA.
On paper, Hugh Kaufman is a career bureaucrat with three decades of service to Uncle Sam under his belt. He’s a GS-14 who works in room SE 301 of the EPA’s offices in southwest D.C. The official title parses thus: senior engineer/investigator in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. But there’s no nameplate or title on his office door, and he doesn’t even have business cards to show his credentials. “I used to have them,” he says, until “they realized I’m a madman.”
Depriving Kaufman of business cards, however, is about the only thing Kaufman’s bosses at the EPA can do to him. Years ago, after he blew a whistle that helped bring down an agency administrator and put one of her aides in prison, the higher-ups responded by putting a tail on Kaufman during his day off. He found out, filed a claim, and prevailed, and in the process obtained a lifetime sinecure at the EPA. You know how hard it is to sack a whistle-blower you’ve been found guilty of harrassing? Well, let’s just say the people who ordered up the surveillance have faded into the mists of bureaucratic time while Kaufman is still there, ensconced in the depths of the EPA. He has becomeby all accounts, including his owna pariah, a functionary without portfolio, and a bit of a creep
to go with it. He has a title and paycheck but no job
to speak of.
Still, Kaufman is far from imprisoned by the bland government cubicle he labors inhe’s freed by it. He’s free, for the most part, to pursue his passions on our dime. Which means that while people in adjoining cubes play Minesweeper between bouts of pushing stacks of paper from one side to the other, Kaufman has ended up working against the government that employs himand on behalf of the moral imperatives that drew him to the EPA nearly 30 years ago. This state of affairs hasn’t made him a big hit inside the agency.
“The rest of us have to work 50 or 60 hours a week,” says one of Kaufman’s colleagues who doesn’t even know him very well. “His job is to be Hugh Kaufman….I don’t know anyone around here who has a lick of respect for him.”
Kaufman doesn’t exactly live for the respect of his peers at the EPA. He believes he serves a broader constituency by putting out information, fragging from the inside, being fearless, being unpopular, and being paid. And if a lot of folks complain about it, a bunch of othersat the other end of the regulatory-industrial complexthink he’s a force for good. Depending on your sympathies, this undertasked EPA functionary may be one of the better uses of federal tax money in this city.
Kaufman sounds furious. I will come to find out that Kaufman is furious about a lot
He is sitting in his house in Southwest recalling the just-ended Texas sludge case, in which Kaufman was sued by a sewage-recycling concern that he’d had the temerity to describe on national television as running an illegal haul-and-dump operation. As in many of his other war stories, it was Kaufman against the Huns. “Me vs. the Democratic hierarchy, which includes the Justice Department, the political appointees in EPA, the sludge pushers in EPA, the House Judiciary Committee power structure, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. And also against me is the goddamn fucking New York Mafia!”
In tone if not in detail, Kaufman could be talking about his entire career in the media spotlight. Over the years, he has waxed outraged to everyone from the Washington Post to CNN, from TV Nation to the Wall Street Journal to, well, me. Cull his clippings and you get the full catalog of irate clichés, from the broad (“I’ve never seen anything like this!”) to the specific (“The investigation was a cover-up!”) to the bitterly philosophical (“If you mouth the party line, your salary is paid while you’re away at official resorts!”).
Once Kaufman leaves the office, some of the edge stays behind. On his couch at home one Friday at lunch hour, Kaufman laughs along as we watch the ultimate western. Actually, it’s not really a western, but it has all the elements of a Wild West classic: long-suffering locals, nefarious outsiders, crusading good guys, and lots of real estate in the balance. From Kaufman’s point of view, it also shouldn’t be that much of a laughing matter: This 2-year-old segment of Michael Moore’s TV Nation is the one that got him sued for half a million bucks.
It has a pretty good plot. New York produces mounds and mounds of waste annually. It used to get dumped into the ocean, but that practice was banned. So now the authorities have been making contracts with a variety of characters to do things like putting the dried-out sewagesludgeon a train to west Texas, where it will be used as fertilizer. And where it will, in the process, stink up the requisite small, impoverished townin this case, tiny Sierra Blanca.
Kaufman has seen the tape a dozen times, but he still laughs out loud at all the cornball, agitprop jokesevery last one coming at the expense of the bad guys. The “sludge cakes,” as treated sludge is called, are described by correspondent Roy Sekoff as “rich and moist, like most finer cakes.” Kaufman makes sure to point out all the best zingers for me, just in case I’ve missed them. Which, given the show’s style and Kaufman’s theatrical laughter, would be pretty hard to do.
In fact, the issue at hand isn’t really funny at alland even a shtickmeister like Moore can’t squeeze too many laughs out of it. The camera pans from sewers full of metropolitan waste to a train crisscrossing the country. It pans to the perky PR woman for the Merco Joint Venture, the firm holding the sludge-spreading contract. In the ’90s, the bad guys don’t wear black hats; they sport spunky smiles and communications degrees.
The camera cuts from fields being sprayed in the sun to a local resident-turned-activist describing how his lumberyard mysteriously burned to the ground to a broken-down rancher morbidly pondering his fate on land his family has owned for 30 years. “I was here before they were,” says Sam Dodge. “But they got big, big money, and I don’t have that kind of money.” Good, solid oater stuff, all of it.
And right when evil is about to trump good, there he is, the man in the bureaucratic hat, riding out of his cubicle into benighted Sierra Blanca: It’s Kaufman! But instead of being furious, instead of raging at the bad guys on the dry plains of west Texas, Kaufman is wearing a suit, sitting in something the TV folks want us to think is a library, looking sternly at the camera over the half-lenses of his reading glasses. He’s no Wyatt Earp, but in a structuralist reading of the episode, he’d play the same role.
“This hazardous material is not allowed to be disposed of or used for beneficial use in the state of New York. And it’s not allowed to be disposed of or used for beneficial use in the state of Texas, either. So what you have is an illegal haul-and-dump operation masquerading as an environmental project. It’s only a masquerade….The people in Texas are being poisoned. Something is rotten in Texas,” Kaufman warns.
Pretty heavy stuff, this. In fact, the role in which Kaufman is cast is a lot more effective than Wyatt Earp: He’s a suit fighting the suits. He’s an EPA official calling bullshit on his own agency. Even before he opens his mouth and makes it plain, the very sight of himso composed, so official, so establishmentsuggests that he’s there to derail a conspiracy.
Of course, when he speaks, it’s supposed to be only for himself, not his bosses. He does tell people that. But TV moves pretty quickly.
Kaufman came to Washington in 1971 for a lot of the same reasons other people did: It was one of the few places you could work on saving the world and have job security while you did it. Just out of the Air ForceKaufman spent his Vietnam-era military service on a base outside Boston (“so you know I didn’t kill anyone”)he came to Washington with a little idealism and a little practical career-mindedness, to join the just-established EPA.
Government service was not exactly a radical break for Kaufman. His father was a lifelong civil servant, working well into his 80s at the Census Bureau. Kaufman himself grew up in Arlington, from which he used to take the streetcar to Griffith Field to watch the old Washington Senators. He got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from George Washington University. But he says his real education was handed down from his parents and the New Deal culture that informed their work for the government.
“My dad was in the government for over 60 years,” explains Kaufman. “He’s in his late 80s now. I grew up in this town, so I was strongly influenced by Roosevelt culture. And I’m really a throwback, [thinking] that government does have a rolean important roleon a number of issues. And that making rich people richer is not the primary business of government.”
Although Kaufman thinks today’s EPA is only slightly more useful than earrings on a pig, he says it wasn’t always thus. Kaufman describes his early years at the fledgling agency in almost utopian terms. “It was can-do,” he says. “See a problem: Solve it. You had a whole confluence of things. The Nixon administration was at key times forced to be more progressive because of Vietnam and civil rights…
“There was a sense both in the country and in the government that the government has to do something about these problems. Now, we can debate how quickly, but there was no question that the government has to do something about the problems. The government never took the position that these aren’t problems. Or buried their head in the sand.”
But Vietnam gave way to Watergate, big government gave way to penny-pinching, and the paradigm shifted for the agency as well as for the people motivated to work there. As the EPA’s regulatory weight became recognized, politics played a bigger and bigger role in agency policy. And careerist employees, a population that Kaufman says grew as the FDR legacy faded, took their cues from the top. “You’re not gonna get promoted in the government if you’re solving problems,” barks Kaufman. “You’re going to get promoted by making politicians look good.”
As he grayedand as his colleagues grew to see the world in shades of grayKaufman magically retained his sense of moral absolutes, and his constitutional tendency to be a pain in somebody’s ass came to the fore. Kaufman began using government’s tendencies against itself, a bureaucratic jujitsu that sometimes ended with the feds flat on their backs and wondering what had hit them.
What had hit them was Kaufman, a bureaucrat with an attitude and a knowledge of which documents to leak, which grass roots to cultivate, and which issues to push. In 1979, unable to change a policy from within the EPA, he went to Congress with evidence that the Carter administration wasn’t doing enough to protect people from contaminated water. He was off and running.
“I see things as a battle between good and evil, between light and darkness,” he says. “Things ebb and flow, and right now the bad guys have a lot of powerful friends.”
Among those friends of the bad guys, according to Kaufman, is pretty much anybody who holds or has ever held any power, political or otherwise. Within five minutes of meeting me, Kaufman has described his boss, the president of the United States, as “dangerous.” Vice President Al Gore is “in the prostitution business now.” House Speaker Newt Gingrich is someone “I wouldn’t even hire to clean my toilet.”
Meanwhile, in case you were wondering, EPA administrator Carol Browner “spends more time looking in the mirror” than watching news about the environment. Of the assistant administrator-designate slated to be his supervisor, Kaufman says, “It’d be easier to have a conversation with a tree.” And he has ecumenical tendencies when it comes to indignation: The environmentalist establishment “wash their hands after they go to the toilet, and before. They don’t like to get their hands dirty with peasants.”
And don’t even start on the industrialists.
I guess this is where I start to get an idea as to why so many people seem to think Hugh Kaufman is a creep.
At lunchtime in a Southwest seafood restaurant, he’s telling me the real story behind his TV Nation appearance. We’re surrounded by a combination of tourists who’ve come down to inspect D.C.’s seafood strip and the gray bureaucrats who populate Southwest’s Great Society architecture.
Without a doubt, I’m hearing the coolest story in the house. Someone listening in on our conversation might pick up the following verbal delicacies: “gangsters,” “sausage fingers,” “Sammy ‘the Bull’ Gravano,” and this: “One of ’em had the map of Sicily written all over his face.”
If the televised version was all Gunsmoke, Kaufman’s take is The Godfather, heavy on the “family” business. In his version, the contract to ship sludge out of state was illegal from the get-go, since he alleges that Merco’s main figureswho just happen to have been cited in several New York newspapers as associates of the Lucchese crime familynever bid on it.
It almost goes without saying that there were also a suspicious death and a whole passel of political connections. Kaufman alleged in Texas Observer that the entire suit was designed to silence his own concurrent investigation of the company’s alleged mob and politics ties. As I said, it’s a cool story.
The part of Kaufman’s story TV Nation usedKaufman’s quip about the illegal haul-and-dump operationwas enough to set Merco off. A few months after the episode aired in mid-1994, the company sued both Kaufman and TriStar, the show’s distributor. Kaufman retained a Kansas City-based lawyer, but after the lawyer’s offices were torched, he took the case himself, over the next few months traveling all over the country as part of the discovery process, when not putting in his 40 hours at the EPA. His efforts were to no avail: In a U.S. District Court in Pecos, Texas, the jury ruled Kaufman liable on defamation charges. He was fined half a million dollars.
Kaufman, unsurprisingly, was furious. He appealed.
The irony of Kaufman’s spending so much of his time traveling around the country on extracurricular activities hasn’t gone completely unnoticedespecially since so many of those extracurriculars involve Kaufman’s bashing the folks who pay his salary. In 1994, the National Enquirer called him “America’s most bizarre bureaucrat.” A Wall Street Journal article did more or less the same, wringing its hands over the government’s inability to sack a guy who has built a career out of jetting around the country attacking official policy.
But in fact, there is something beautifully nonironic about Kaufman. He uses the term “bad guys” without the slightest hint of irony. His expressions of outrage are frequent, but for the most part they are also justified. Either way, they are entirely genuine. “I’ve got a twinkle in my eye,” he says, describing himself as we arrange our first meeting. “Because I’m not afraid of the bad guys.”
“He’s just so unusual,” says Greenpeace’s Rick Hind, who has worked alongside Kaufman on various anti-pollution campaigns. “Usually, the best you get from EPA people is a between-the-lines comment. Kaufman never minces words.”
“He’s a real fighter,” says Fran Alswang, who produced the sludge segment for TV Nation. “He’s someone who believes and carries out those beliefs.”
These days, alas, it takes a lot more than a twinkle in the eye and some unminced prose to fight Kaufman’s array of enemies. Electoral winds change, leaving bureaucracies in place to be run by folks who’d just as soon not have their functions carried out at all. From the environment to civil rights, the ’80sand Kaufman says the ’90s, toohave progressed as if the police department had been taken over by people ideologically opposed to anti-mugging laws. It’s hard to be a good guy in the Clinton era. You have to be a creep. You might even have to be crazy.
A distant co-worker who can’t tell me anything about Kaufman except nasty water-cooler scuttlebutt makes this point, too: “People who have the guts to take on the system have balls or are screwed up themselves.”
“There are a lot of folks at EPA who do want environmental problems solved,” says Kaufman. “And they do have to quietly pass information on and work both sides. Because there is no direct effort [at the top] or desire to solve problems….The people that care have gone underground or [are] gone.” In the agency’s current culture, says William Sanjour, another whistle-blower who’s been a longtime pain in the agency’s behind, “career comes first. So if they’re given an assignment, they convince themselves it’s right and resent someone who fights the system.”
“I’ve been a GS-14 forever,” says Kaufman. “So what?!”
He has clashed, in his own polite way, with EPA higher-ups over nuclear waste and a variety of other hazardous-waste issues. And when a dispute about a new waste dump pops up, opponents can usually rely on Kaufman to lead the charge against his own agency.
The issue that initially brought him to TV Nation, land-application of sludge, is also, conveniently, a major policy beef between Kaufman and his bosses at the EPA. Agency policy holds that reapplying treated sewage sludge for beneficial usesuch as for fertilizeris a good thing. Kaufman, meanwhile, uses his position to explain agency policy in a rather different way: “It is EPA policy,” he says, “to grow food on poison.” He says that a lot.
Whenever he discusses extracurricular activities like the Nora affairor like the 1993 fight he led against a hazardous-waste dump in East Liverpool, OhioKaufman uses terms like “have some fun,” or “kick a little butt.” It’s a little jarring, given the perilous plights he describes of the people who live there. But a glimpse at his daily Washington grind makes you understand why raising hell in front of a grain elevator sounds like a great way to spend the weekend.
The EPA houses Kaufman in a windowless cubicle next to a secretary. There’s a computer on his desk, a bunch of paper, an industrial-strength telephone, and a couple of chairsonly one of them bearing the telltale butt-shaped dent. There’s nothing at all on the walls, not even the cheesy pro-recycling posters that grace the rest of the building’s bleak American Century corridors.
“They keep promoting him to less and less hands-on positions,” says one EPA watcher, who argues that Kaufman’s knack for going off in exactly the opposite direction from his bosses has landed him in that particular cubicle. Hind says the same thing, with a different emphasis: “It’s psychological warfare. They give him a job where there’s nothing to do. They give him no windows.”
When I ask Kaufman about what he does, he says, “I write reports. I investigate cases.” But when pressed about just what he’s done today, Kaufman mentions waking up, making bagels, driving his daughter to school over in Virginia (she splits weeks between Hugh and his ex-wife, but goes to public school in Arlington), and doing some grocery shopping. As for his activities once his butt hits the chair at the EPA, Kaufman rattles off a series of issues that sound an awful lot like agenda items from any of his supposed hobbies.
This morning, he explains, “I’ve been working on a case in Miami, doing background on it…a Superfund site that’s very controversial. There’s a developer that wants a quick remediation so they can build a very expensive project, and the public in the area wants a more thorough remediation,” because the site is “poisoning them.”
So where does the EPA come in on that?
“On the side of the developer. It’s the ’90s, remember.” Kaufman explains that he, on the other hand, has been “working with some of the citizens on background information.”
And this afternoon it will be back to sludge. Next year, the Department of Agriculture will promulgate regulations on what may and what may not be called “organic.” Kaufman worries that agribusiness interests may try to dilute the meaning of the termsending the label “organic food” to the outhouse. “There’s a lot of pressure to allow foods grown on sewage sludge to be called organic….What I’m trying to do is put together a group and identify issues to countervail the issues that I see are gonna come into play once USDA proposes their first set of regulations.”
So the EPA will host these groups?
“No! The EPA policy, remember, is to promote growing food on poison.”
While his opinions aren’t highly prized inside the EPA, Kaufman doesn’t have much trouble finding an audience. “I’ve spoken to universities, to citizens groups. Next week I’m speaking to the state convention of soil and water conservation groups of New York, in Geneva. Saturday, I’m speaking to a breast cancer environmental thing in Philly.” In fact, he can’t remember how many places he’s brought his EPA-bashing message to: “I’ve stirred things up in about every state. But not Hawaii, though.”
Six years ago, a new EPA policy threatened to put an end to Kaufman’s travels. Federal employees were forbidden to receive honoraria for speeches, and the new regulation would also have prohibited Kaufman from being reimbursed by hosts for travel to non-agency approved speeches.
He was, of course, furious.
After four years of legal wrangling by Kaufman, Sanjour, and a lawyer from the National Whistleblowers’ Center, the policy was overturned. With characteristic reserve, Kaufman told the Washington Times that the U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision was “the Brown v. Board of Education for government employee whistle-blowers.”
All this whistle-blowing stuff sounds nifty, but as I listen I can’t escape the dread that comes from being inside a massive government office, even for a few minutes. We are deep in the heart of the beast, a building tucked into the utopian architecture of the new Southwest, with its Space Age rowhouses and don’t-touch-the-ground apartment buildings. I tell Kaufman that when I was a kid I had a friend who lived around here. It was a great place for 7-year-olds to play tag, because there were so many places to hide. “We used to have places like that, too,” says Kaufman. He waits three beats. “They were called forests!”
The fight to overturn his defamation charge was, of course, an epic battle between moneyed elites and a single bureaucrat with an attitude, at least in Kaufman’s version. What’s certain is that it was one hell of a long shot. The reversal of a federal jury decision is fairly unusual, and his case took its own sweet time winding its way toward the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. Last year, the 5th Circuit Courtconsidered the nation’s most conservative courtfinally made a decision.
The case hinged on Kaufman’s assertion that Merco was running an illegal operation that was harming the people of west Texas. He successfully argued that no consensus existed for the notion that reapplying sludge was safe. The suit was thrown out. Kaufman won. He learned the news while sitting in his cubicle one morning this past June.
“I said, ‘What the fuck! Jesus Christ!’ One of the most conservative courts in the country, a three-judge panel, said, ‘Kaufman, you’re right, 100 percent, and they’re wrong! They said they didn’t prove anything Kaufman said was a lie. In fact, he told the truth! In fact, there is no consensus that this goddamn practice is safe….It was David and Goliath. An honest assistant United States Attorney, a couple of honest FBI agents, and Kaufman vs. the fuckin’ world!”
Safely spared a $500,000 fine, Kaufman, in post-trial sigh-of-relief mode, can say it was the legal principle that mattered, not the money. “What am I going to do?” he jokes. “I don’t have half a million dollars. I’d have gone into bankruptcy. Kiss my ass!”
That’s not where the story ends. Kaufman’s still at EPA, of course. He still works for the government. Time moves on, things change, but the bureaucracy is forever. Kaufman has 30 years’ work for Uncle Sam under his belt, and he’s aiming at 40.
After jumping around and calling his friends to brag about the verdict, Kaufman says he marched down to the assistant administrator at the EPA. During the discovery process, he had come across a document showing that higher-ups at the agency had met with the folks who were suing him. Having Kaufman lose the suit would help his superiorsafter all, agency policy favored the reapplication of sewage sludge. So the EPA, Kaufman says, helped the people who were suing him.
“What happens to me after this lawsuit? Nothing!” Kaufman continues. “One of the problems when you put all of your chips on the table to kill Kaufman and lose, you got no more chips to play….I told the assistant administrator, personally.” Kaufman’s shield all of a sudden had another layer. Clutching the document that outlines the EPA-Merco meeting where he was mentioned, Kaufman cackles that “it’s my security blanket.”
Kaufman says he also visited the EPA’s assistant general counsel and mentioned he’d won his appeal. She “looked like someone had hit her upside the head with a two-by-four. It was polite. I did the polite way of going, ‘Fuck you.’ The Washington way.”
And the next day, he went to work. The Kaufman way. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.