From the moment President Obama took office, conservatives have made a small sport of attacking obscure functionaries within his administration — surfacing old, often out-of-context statements and actions that make his political appointees appear extreme. Over the past three years, they’ve taken aim at a handful officials, and almost without exception, they’ve felled their targets. The goal isn’t really to root bad actors out of the executive branch, but rather to amass a pile of scalps and contend that Obama is radicalizing the government.
Al Armendariz is the latest victim. He resigned from the EPA on Sunday after conservative media latched on to comments he made years ago about deterring bad actors in fossil fuel industries by making examples of — or ‘crucifying’ — those that get caught breaking the law. In context, his remarks were harmless, if a bit hyperbolic. Most reports ignored the context — he said the word “crucify,” after all.
His undoing differs from the Shirley Sherrod fiasco in two key respects: Armendariz insists he was not pressured to step down by the administration, and despite the harmless nature of his comments, he never proffered a defense of himself — he apologized for his remarks, and insisted they ran counter to the spirit of the EPA’s mission. But the timeline of events leading up to his resignation follows a pattern that will be familiar to anybody who watched Sherrod or Van Jones lose their jobs.
November 5, 2009 President Barack Obama appoints Armendariz administrator of the EPA’s region six office in Dallas. He’s charged with of managing EPA’s activities in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and 66 tribal nations, according to a biography that has since been removed from EPA’s website.
May 10, 2010 Armendariz appears at a town council meeting in Dish, Texas which had become a hub for natural gas pipelines the Barnett Shale project. One father complains that his 11-year-old son lost a baby tooth that wasn’t replaced by an adult tooth and that his dentist said it was a common occurrence in the area and “way out of whack compared to the national average.”
Answering a question about the EPA’s enforcement power over oil companies, Armendariz uses a metaphor about how Romans “used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean” by finding five men to “crucify,” as a deterrent to bad behavior. He prefaced the remark by saying that it was a little “crude” and “perhaps inappropriate” for the meeting, and, crucially, the full context of the remarks make clear he was referring to companies that break the law.
The “crucify” remark doesn’t make the story that ran on the front page of the Denton Record-Chronicle the next morning, but the reporter who covered it said she believes she would have included it if it had created controversy at the time.
“The things I remembered from that night was that they were a pretty beaten-down group of people out in Dish and they’d had trouble for a very long time getting any meaningful response, and they’re still having trouble,” journalist Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe told TPM in a phone interview.
“It was a pretty full house that night,” she said. “They were glad to hear there was going to be some federal enforcement, because they hadn’t had anything meaningful up until that point.”
May 12, 2010 - Dec 31, 2010 Nothing.
Jan 1, 2011 - Dec 31, 2011 Nothing.
Jan 1, 2012 - April 24, 2012 Nothing.
April 25, 2012 Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) speaks on the floor of the Senate chamber. Sometime in April, in the course of research, his Environment and Public Works Committee staffers discovered a video of Armendariz posted nearly two years ago by someone who had attended the meeting. Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for the Committee minority, told TPM that the original video was about an hour and a half long (it’s since been taken down). Inhofe’s clip was one minute and 49 seconds:
April 26, 2012: The media storm over the two-year-old comments kicks into full gear — Wall Street Journal editorials, blog posts, Fox News segments, the works.
Rush Limbaugh addressed the controversy with typical restraint. “That’s how this guy wanted to deal and was dealing with oil and gas companies, legitimate American and international corporations,” he said. “He hates them, he wants to subjugate ‘em, he wants to crucify ‘em, just because he can. And he’s bragging about how to do it. That’s who they are, my friends.”
April 27, 2012: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said she talked to Armendariz and is glad he apologized, calling his comments “disappointing.”
April 29, 2012 Armendariz writes his resignation letter to Jackson.
April 30, 2012: Armendariz’s resignation letter and Jackson’s accompanying statement becomes public.
Dempsy tells TPM it’s “really hard to tell” whether Armendariz left on his own or whether he was under pressure by the Obama administration. “We have noticed this kind of shift in rhetoric and actions by the EPA in that they want to say one thing about natural gas and producing natural gas and yet when you look at their record, it’s very clear that they want to be in line with the environmental community. It’s a very difficult tightrope to walk.”
The White House and EPA declined to comment on the record about whether Armendariz was pressured to leave. However Armendariz also wrote a letter to colleagues and friends insisting he wasn’t. “This was not something that was asked of me by Administrator Jackson or the White House,” he insists. “It is a decision I made myself. I had become too much of a distraction, and no one person is more important than the incredible work being done by the rest of the team at EPA.”
“Over the weekend Dr. Armendariz offered his resignation, which I accepted,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in an official statement. “I respect the difficult decision he made and his wish to avoid distracting from the important work of the Agency. We are all grateful for Dr. Armendariz’s service to EPA and to our nation.”
You can read Armendariz’ resignation letter here.
Late update: This article initially identified the city of Dish, TX as Dash, TX. We regret the error.