Former local elected official and head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Southwest Region Mike Stoker has filed a lawsuit against former agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler and three of his top deputies for defamation.
In the lawsuit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Mr. Stoker accuses Mr. Wheeler and others of making “several false and unprivileged statements” about him, which meant to convey that Mr. Stoker is “a liar, a fraud” and “someone who should not be trusted and someone who is neglectful and incompentent in the administration of his duties,” the lawsuit reads.
The defendant’s statements exposed Mr. Stoker to “hatred, contempt, ridicule, and shame,” and “discouraged others from associating or dealing with him,” according to the lawsuit.
Along with Mr. Wheeler, other defendants in the lawsuit include former EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Douglas Benevento, former chief of staff Ryan Jackson and former EPA spokesman Corry Schiermeyer.
Mr. Stoker, a former Santa Barbara County supervisor and current Carpinteria resident, was hired in May 2018 as the head of what is known as Region 9, which includes California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and the Pacific islands.
He was fired in February 2020. According to the lawsuit, Mr. Stoker was contacted by Mr. Benevento and Mr. Jackson by phone and his employment was terminated.
When asked for the reason for his termination, Mr. Stoker was told it “wasn’t personal” though neither Mr. Benevento nor Mr. Jackson provided a reason for his firing, according to the lawsuit.
One day after his firing, the lawsuit accuses the defendants of “recklessly and knowingly reported falsehoods” about Mr. Stoker, which included that he was “too interested in travel for the sake of travel and ignored necessary decision making required of a regional administrator.”
The defendants also said that EPA leadership repeatedly requested he conduct “the basic responsibilities of his job,” and that after many requests they “had to relieve him for severe neglect and incompetent administration of his duties,” according to the lawsuit.
Several news reports following Mr. Stoker’s firing damaged his reputation, “presented him in a false light that resulted in disparaging his good name and reputation, and caused him emotional distress and economic loss,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit claims the statements were “prepared, approved of and made with malice as they were knowingly untrue” and intended to harm Mr. Stoker.
The lawsuit also says that Mr. Stoker performed his job diligently and was never orally reprimanded or written up for poor performance. The lawsuit further alleges that all his travel was approved by the EPA and that the agency was aware that none of his travel violated its rules.
“These statements, now that they’re on any Google search, with an allegation that he was terminated for dereliction of duties, have negatively affected his ability to earn income, as well as his earning capacity,” Jordan Hankey, of the Law Office of Jordan D. Hankey, which is representing Stoker, told Bloomberg Law.
The lawsuit, filed against the individual defendants and not the EPA, seeks punitive damages against the four defendants.
Mr. Stoker is requesting judgement of an amount greater than $75,000 to be determined by trial, plus costs, pre- and post-judgement interests and other relief that the court deems appropriate.
As reported in February 2020 by the News-Press, Mr. Stoker sent a letter to Region 9 staff following his firing. In the letter, Mr. Stoker said he received a call advising him to either tender his resignation or he would be terminated.
“Within minutes my EPA phone and laptop were disabled,” Mr. Stoker wrote at the time.
The letter cited “a lot of specific situations,” for his removal, but additional details were not provided.
“So why did the Wednesday morning call occur? There are a lot of specific situations that someday I will reveal but that day will not occur while the President is still in office. I was appointed by the President and I remain loyal to the President,” Mr. Stoker wrote, in reference to former President Donald Trump.
“Generally speaking I will say I believe too many clashes between myself and leadership in HQ over policy and non-policy items (when I was given advance notice which often was not the case) ultimately played a significant role in the call,” he added.
During his time with the EPA, Mr. Stoker had been criticized for attempting to oversee employees stationed in San Francisco from Los Angeles. Some 93% of the 663 employees within Region 9 were stationed in San Francisco. He petitioned to have his duty station changed to Los Angeles, a request that was later granted.
In March 2019, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General investigated a “hotline complaint” about how much time Mr. Stoker was spending away from San Francisco. The office then issued a “Management Alert” that documented how Mr. Stoker spent $43,875 in taxpayer funds on 35 separate trips between May 2018 and February 2019. The report found he spent only 30 out of 145 workdays in San Francisco.
Prior to joining the EPA, Mr. Stoker was the director of government affairs for UnitedAg, one of the state’s largest agricultural associations. He also served as a member of the Santa Barbara County Supervisors from 1986-1994, chairman of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board from 1995-2000 and California deputy secretary of state from 2000 to 2002.
More recently, Mr. Stoker is known as the person behind the “lock her up” chants in opposition to Hillary Clinton.