Prosecutor will turn her talents to defense Veteran lawyer joins private practice



An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun noted that Jane F. Barrett, a former assistant U.S. attorney, had a small figure of a barracuda in her office. The figure was not given to her by a federal judge but by an FBI agent.

The "Barracuda" has bitten her last criminal. After 21 years of preying on polluters, poachers, con artists and wetlands despoilers, Jane F. Barrett leaves the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore today to swim on the other side.

Looking for a new challenge -- and extra income to finance her son's looming college education -- the veteran federal prosecutor is joining a Washington law firm. There, she intends to defend businesses and people facing fraud or environmental charges with the same aggressiveness she used to put them behind bars.

"It's been a nice ride," she said recently while packing up papers, law books and mementos in her cramped, cluttered office at the Edward A. Garmatz federal courthouse downtown. "I hope to do some preventive law -- keep people out of the courtroom."

That will be a switch. By her reckoning, Barrett, 45, has tried more environmental criminal cases than any other prosecutor in the country.

First as a lawyer for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, then as assistant Maryland attorney general, and finally as assistant U.S. attorney, Barrett established a nationwide reputation for her passionate pursuit of environmental and white-collar criminals.

Fresh out of University of Maryland Law School, she helped the fledgling EPA win one of its first criminal convictions -- involving a major chemical manufacturer, FMC Corp., accused of dumping toxic chemicals in a West Virginia river and contaminating the drinking water of three cities downstream.

More recently in Maryland, her targets have included a wealthy Wall Street financier and his foreman, a prominent real estate developer and a trio of high-ranking Pentagon officials -- all charged in separate cases with flouting environmental laws.

"She was tenacious," said Robert Percival, who teaches environmental law at the University of Maryland Law School. "She brought some of the most important early cases that showed that the criminal provisions of the environmental laws had teeth."

Straight to the top

By many accounts, her most significant case was the prosecution in 1989 of three civilian managers of the Army's chemical weapons research program for illegally disposing of hazardous waste at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

The charges rocked the federal bureaucracy, especially the Defense Department, which until then had considered itself exempt from adhering to federal environmental laws.

"It was the first time that [federal] senior executives had been charged," she recalled.

The problems took place at the proving ground's Pilot Plant, an aging brick building where toxic chemicals were dumped and spilled in the course of researching production of binary nerve gas weapons. Army officials denied state environmental inspectors access to the proving ground and the plant.

Bringing the case was difficult. Prosecutors agonized over whether to file criminal charges because there was no evidence that the government employees were violating the law to enrich themselves, as was often the case with private business executives accused of polluting. Some politicians also objected to publicly embarrassing the Pentagon.

"There was a lot of lobbying in Washington by muckety mucks to not bring the case," Barrett recalled. But she persevered, with her boss at the time, U.S. Attorney Breckenridge Willcox, taking the political flak for her.

"If we don't hold federal employees accountable," she said, "it's very difficult to hold anyone accountable.

"The fact we went after senior managers -- and not the lower-level guys who did the spilling and dumping -- sent shock waves through the military," she said. "It still does."

Since then, the Defense Department has poured billions of dollars into cleaning up pollution at military facilities nationwide. Recently, she said, a Marine Corps official telephoned seeking a videotape of her discussing the Aberdeen case for use in educating a new generation of military personnel to the importance of obeying environmental laws.

On Barrett's bookcase sits a plastic model of the USS Coral Sea, the historic aircraft carrier that figured in her last high-profile case. Kerry L. Ellis Sr., owner of Seawitch Salvage Inc., awaits sentencing for exposing his workers to hazardous asbestos and for polluting Baltimore's harbor during the carrier's scrapping. Barrett was lead prosecutor in the May jury trial.

Behind the ship model is a small mounted figure of a barracuda, the razor-toothed tropical fish with a reputation for attacking bathers. It was given to her in jest by one of the federal judges, but the nickname has since been applied by friend and foe alike.

Barrett also tried several important fraud and political corruption cases in her 11 years as a federal prosecutor. Yet her environmental work earned her the most praise -- and criticism.

"She knows more about environmental law than 10 other lawyers I've ever met," said Richard D. Bennett, another former U.S. attorney for Maryland and now a counsel in Washington to the House committee investigating political fund raising.

Last year, Barrett directed the prosecution of Interstate General Corp. and its chairman, James J. Wilson, in the biggest criminal case brought to protect wetlands, nature's kidneys that shield waterways from pollution and flooding. The developer of the St. Charles planned community in Charles County was sentenced to 21 months in prison for illegally filling 70 acres, and his companies were fined a record $2 million. He remains free on appeal.

So feared was Barrett's record of convictions that some alleged violators have quickly agreed to settlements at the first hint she might take the case, according to Sandra Zelen, chief of enforcement for the Baltimore District of the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates wetlands. "She's a real go-getter," Zelen said.

Called 'bounty hunter'

But Barrett does have her detractors, notably among corporate lawyers and conservatives who tend to oppose jail sentences for breaking environmental laws. Especially controversial are wetlands protection laws, which some contend deny landowners constitutional rights.

To one such critic -- Margaret Ann "Peggy" Reigle -- Barrett was a "bounty hunter." Reigle, head of a property rights group in Cambridge called the Fairness to Land Owners Committee, tried in vain in 1992 to win a pardon for a Virginia man Barrett helped convict of illegally filling wetlands in Dorchester County. "She wanted this guy behind bars," Reigle said.

Barrett and Bennett mounted a public campaign to deny the pardon for William Ellen, at one point holding a press conference on the Eastern Shore. Ellen, who maintained he was trying to improve the landscape by building duck ponds for a New York commodities trader's private shooting preserve, served six months in prison. The trader, Paul Tudor Jones, paid a then-record $2 million in fines and restitution.

"We're glad she no longer will abuse her power as a prosecutor," said Paul Kamenar, director of the Washington Legal Foundation, a critic of her wetlands prosecutions.

Some are even nastier. One prominent Washington attorney, a former Justice Department official in charge of environmental prosecutions who now defends such cases, went so far as to attack her physical appearance in recent remarks to a group of business executives in Washington.

Barrett, present when the remark was made, refuses to discuss it, but points out that the lawyer who made it represented a prominent defendant who had pleaded guilty to illegally filling wetlands in a case she prosecuted.

"A lot of it comes with the territory," she said. "Anytime you prosecute people -- who until you brought the case had an unblemished record in the community -- over something as controversial as environmental laws, you're going to be called names."

Environmentalists and federal regulators credit her with working to increase cooperation among local, state and federal agencies in enforcing the laws. A task force she helped set up in Baltimore recently cracked down on illegal dumping in the city.

But some lawyers and property-rights advocates with whom she has tangled find it ironic that Barrett is switching sides -- like so many others before her -- to defend businesses and people against the government. Even some of her admirers wonder how easily she'll be able to change roles.

"She might have a hard time defending environmental violators," suggested a former colleague, who asked not to be identified. "She's going to have to learn to see gray as opposed to black and white."

Barrett foresees no trouble, pointing out that American justice is adversarial, with lawyers arguing over the facts and the law.

"Having strong, aggressive defense attorneys makes sure you have the best prosecution," she said.

Criminal laws are there to deter wrongdoing, she noted, and good lawyers help clients comply with rules, rather than fight in court. "It's much more expensive to clean up a mess than to prevent it in the first place," she said.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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