DNR chief says Nixon wields 'heavy hammer' in Ameren case

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A criminal case filed by the attorney general would affect negotiations with the utility over the Taum Sauk collapse.

Attorney General Jay Nixon retains the authority to file criminal charges against AmerenUE for the December collapse of a mountaintop reservoir despite being dismissed from his role as attorney for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

In an interview with the Southeast Missourian, DNR director Doyle Childers said that "heavy hammer" leaves Nixon a large role in determining the outcome of negotiations with the utility.

Childers said he hopes to resolve the issue of Ameren's responsibility for the collapse of the Taum Sauk reservoir without a lawsuit. The Dec. 14 rupture sent more than 1 billion gallons of water rampaging through Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park, destroying thousands of trees and closing the park for months.

"I am hopeful it will be settled," Childers said. "Ameren has said all along that they want to make the state whole."

But a criminal case could change Ameren's stance, he said.

"Right now it appears that insurance would cover the cost," he said. "If it becomes a criminal case, the insurance would be no good."

Childers fired Nixon as the agency's lawyer Monday. He said the action was prompted by a "gag order" issued by Nixon's office forbidding the department from copying any documents associated with the case.

But the decision didn't end Nixon's authority over criminal charges, Childers said.

John Fougere, a spokesman for Nixon, said the attorney general would continue to lead the investigation of the reservoir failure. "As far as we are concerned, nothing has changed in our approach to this matter."

The reservoir was part of an Ameren hydroelectric power station on the Black River.

The dispute between Nixon and the DNR over how to handle legal action became increasingly mired in politics Friday, with the Missouri Democratic Party accusing Gov. Matt Blunt of seeking to protect Ameren because of past political support.

The Democrats' attack on Blunt said the Republican governor is controlling the DNR response. Nixon, a Democrat, already has announced plans to challenge Blunt, a Republican, in 2008.

"Now, Governor Blunt has seized control of that part of the investigation, and therefore is in a better position to protect Ameren," Democratic spokesman Jack Cardetti said. Blunt might seek to help the company because it donated to his gubernatorial campaign in the past, Cardetti said.

Childers said Blunt did not make the decision to stop using Nixon on the Ameren case. Childers said he made the decision after learning this month that Nixon accepted more than $19,000 in campaign contributions that originated with Ameren. The decision prompted a call from the governor's office, he said.

"When I did this, I don't mind telling you, I got a call saying, 'We agree with your action, but we ask that you'd let us know before you do things like this,"' Childers said Friday.

Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said neither the governor nor anyone in his office would comment on the matter.

Nixon launched an investigation into Ameren immediately after the collapse. He told The Associated Press earlier this month he was looking to resolve the matter in a way that best benefited the taxpayers of Missouri. He said he was in "complicated discussions" with Ameren.

Fougere said Nixon is still pursuing the case, regardless of DNR's decision to handle its own legal fight to recoup damage costs.

"We're confident that all of the state and local interests will work together on the Taum Sauk matter," Fougere said.

The Democratic Party outlined a number of links between Blunt and Ameren in a news release Friday. The release pointed out that Blunt's brother, Andrew Blunt, lobbies for Ameren, which already has been reported. It also said Ameren and its executives have given tens of thousands of dollars to Blunt between 2003 and 2005. None of the contributions it listed were given after the reservoir collapse.

Ameren spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said in an e-mail that the company gives to both political parties and has not given directly to Blunt or Nixon since the reservoir collapse.

After the reservoir collapse, Ameren gave four equal payments of $5,000 to separate campaign finance groups. The groups then gave nearly all the money to Nixon's campaign. Nixon returned the money after the AP reported on the donations, and Childers asked him to step off the Taum Sauk investigation.

Gallagher said Ameren has not asked campaign committees to steer money to either Blunt or Nixon.

Staff writer Rudi Keller contributed to this report.

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