From prosecutor to educator

The Baltimore Sun

The "Barracuda" is back.

Jane F. Barrett, who earned the piscine predator's nickname in 21 years as a prosecutor of environmental and white-collar criminals in Maryland, has returned to the state after a decade in private law practice in Washington.

This time, she'll be schooling a new generation of advocates. She's taking over as director of the environmental law clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law, her alma mater, where she'll run what she calls the biggest pro bono environmental law firm in the state.

"I think it's going to be a lot of fun," said Barrett, 54, "because the Chesapeake Bay, though I wish it weren't true, is still troubled. There's so much to do."

With classes starting this week, Barrett oversees 10 law students as they represent residents and nonprofit groups such as the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and the Potomac Riverkeeper in dealing with environmental problems. The students pore through government records and permit files to prepare cases, write letters and testimony on behalf of their clients and even at times file lawsuits.

It's a new mentoring role for Barrett, who has been focused on practicing law for the past 31 years - though she has done teaching stints as an adjunct professor at UM and Georgetown law schools. As part of the clinic, Barrett, an associate professor, will teach a course on environmental practice.

"She's had such an incredibly long track record seeing these issues from all different sides, working with agencies, as a prosecutor and as a defense lawyer," said UM law professor Robert Percival, who oversees the school's environmental law program and who recruited Barrett. "It would be difficult finding anyone with more experience with all aspects of environmental law."

Barrett spent the first two decades of her legal career working for government - the Environmental Protection Agency, the Maryland attorney general's office and the U.S. attorney's office.

It was during her tenure in the U.S. attorney's office that she was given a small, mounted figure of a barracuda - a humorous gift from a federal judge impressed by her fierce pursuit of her prey. She still keeps it among her cherished mementos.

While a federal prosecutor, she won convictions of developers, engineers and federal officials for illegally filling wetlands, dumping hazardous wastes and polluting Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

"She brought the first successful criminal prosecution against federal officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground," Percival said.

In 1989, she won convictions of three civilian managers of the Army's chemical weapons research program at Aberdeen for illegally disposing of hazardous wastes.

"That was the case, more than anything else, that sent the message that criminal penalties were something to be taken very very seriously, not just by industry but by government employees," Percival recalled. The convictions prompted the Department of Defense to upgrade its efforts to comply with environmental laws and regulations, he said.

She also led the legal team that prosecuted the owner of a ship salvage company in Baltimore for exposing his workers to hazardous asbestos and for polluting the harbor.

Barrett handled several wetlands cases, including the high-profile prosecution of the developer of a planned community in Charles County who was sentenced to 21 months in prison for illegally filling 70 acres of wetlands in the 1980s and early 1990s.

After Barrett left the U.S. attorney's office, an appeals court overturned that conviction of Interstate General Corp. and its chairman, James J. Wilson, but the firm later pleaded guilty and paid a $1.5 million fine rather than face a new trial.

Her pugnacious pursuit of violators - particularly in politically sensitive cases like the one involving the Aberdeen managers or involving development of wetlands, long a bone of contention among builders and farmers - drew criticism. One property-rights advocate who claimed the federal government was abusing its power in trying to regulate wetlands called Barrett "a bounty hunter."

Financial concerns, rather than criticism, prompted Barrett to leave the U.S. attorney's office a decade ago to join a Washington law firm. Her son was approaching college age, she explained at the time, and she needed to earn more money.

In Washington, she represented business and individuals across the country dealing with environmental problems, and her job involved trying to resolve the issues without litigation when possible.

She represented a Texas-based oil conglomerate charged, along with four employees, with violating federal air pollution laws. A subsidiary pleaded guilty and paid a $20 million fine, but the charges against the employees were dropped. She also represented one of the executives of Royal Ahold who became ensnared in an accounting scandal at the Dutch firm that owns Giant Food.

But much of her private practice took place in private. In recent years, she said, she has conducted internal investigations for clients wanting to get a handle on allegations or problems before they wound up in court - or in the news.

Private practice, she said, has reinforced her long-held view that prevention and compliance with pollution laws are the best first option, though prosecution remains important for people who don't get the compliance message.

"One of the things I've learned is there are no absolute black hats, no absolute white hats," she said in an interview this week. "There are people concerned about conserving natural resources on all sides of the fence," she added, just as there are all kinds of people undermining the environment, in government as well as business. "You need to get behind the labels and figure out how you move forward."

But though she'd prefer to have everyone sit down and talk about how best to protect the environment, she said she's still passionate about her advocacy for the bay and the state's air, land and water.

The clinic's student lawyers at times wade into controversies. Last year, they produced a report highlighting lax enforcement of waterfront development restrictions intended to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Barrett foresees similar opportunities for the clinic to delve into neglected laws and regulations.

"The state's understaffed, the federal government's understaffed, and counties are understaffed," she said. "You need to be the eyes and ears - you need to be informed as to what to look for and how to evaluate it."

And just in case they're still needed, the barracuda reminded, she still has teeth.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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