Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has appointed an attorney with conservative political credentials but no experience working within the state Department of Natural Resources as the agency’s new chief legal counsel.
Walker’s spokesman wouldn’t discuss the governor’s appointment of Jake Curtis, but Curtis’ last employer described him as a skilled lawyer who has been a key adviser in partisan election campaigns. And he has advocated for relaxed pollution rules.
Curtis will be the first DNR legal counsel without a strong grounding in the areas of law that underlie department regulations on fish and wildlife, forestry and environmental quality, said George Meyer, a former department secretary and lawyer who now directs the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
“He does not have good background in all those areas,” Meyer said. “His major experience had been a philosophical, political bent on legislative matters. You are going to tend to get a lot more political decisions.”
In 2011, the DNR’s legal counsel post was among the positions Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature changed from civil service jobs to political appointees. Meyer said it extended the political control gained by Wisconsin governors under a 1995 law that took hiring of the DNR secretary away from the Natural Resources Board.
Curtis has served as a Wisconsin adviser to Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz and was an aide to a GOP state legislator.
He excelled in his last job working for the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s Center for Competitive Federalism and may bring a fresh viewpoint to the DNR, said WILL president Rick Esenberg.
“He also is sort of astute and mature and has enough judgment to know how to come in from the outside and manage to change directions without causing the type of consternation that could get in the way of doing that,” Esenberg said.
Under Walker, DNR enforcement actions have decreased, but businesses have continued to express frustration.
For years, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the state’s powerful agriculture lobby were unhappy with DNR regulation of high-capacity wells. It took action by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel to loosen rules, leading the agency to issue dozens of permits allowing pumping in vulnerable areas. Last month, a judge rejected eight of the permits.
In July, the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association sued the DNR to end regulations aimed at preventing water pollution from millions of gallons of manure produced by large animal feedlots. The suit was settled last month with the dairy group dropping its demand in exchange for the DNR’s promise to end efforts to reduce water pollution from vast feed storage areas.
WMC general counsel Lucas Vebber said Curtis was very capable.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the professionals at DNR to ensure compliance with all regulations while growing our state’s economy,” Vebber said.
Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters executive director Kerry Schumann said Walker’s appointment of Curtis would speed the rollback of environmental protections Republicans have undertaken since gaining control of state government in 2011.
“Jake Curtis has no place in an agency that requires scientific objectivity and experience in conservation law,” Schumann said. “This is another sad chapter in the Walker era. From acid mining to air pollution to dirtier lakes and rivers, the damage Walker and his administration are perpetrating against the people of Wisconsin is brutal, morally reprehensible, and endangers generations of Wisconsinites.”
Seeking few air pollution laws
Curtis has been a frequent contributor to the “Right Wisconsin” blog, which includes conservative talk show hosts among its writers. In his most recent article, Curtis supported proposed regulatory changes including a bill co-authored by his former boss, state Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, to remove limits on more than 300 air pollutants.
In July, Curtis wrote a 21-page report for WILL arguing that an air pollution monitor in Sheboygan County threatens to create a “no growth zone” there. It is part of a network used to gauge regional air quality, including hazardous pollution that drifts from larger industrial areas such as Chicago.
Curtis recommended steps he said “would represent aggressive revisions to the Clean Air Act” to prevent costly emission reductions for businesses, and he expressed optimism based on President Donald Trump’s moves to relax pollution regulation.
In “Right Wisconsin,” Curtis argued for a bill Stroebel co-sponsored to direct the DNR to seek federal approval to stop collecting pollution data from the monitor near Lake Michigan.
The WILL website said Curtis has also been published in the National Review Online, and worked as Stroebel’s policy director.
“In addition to his role as an attorney, Jake has been actively involved in Wisconsin politics since 2004,” the website says. “He previously served in key advisory roles to Assembly, State Senate, Judicial, and U.S. Senate campaigns. Most recently, he served as a Wisconsin advisor to the Ted Cruz presidential campaign.”
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the DNR could answer questions about Walker’s appointment of Curtis. DNR spokesman Jim Dick didn’t respond when asked if Walker wanted changes in the DNR legal department. Curtis didn’t respond to requests for comment emailed to him or through Dick.
Curtis replaces Quinn Williams, a longtime DNR attorney who recently took a job at the state Department of Administration.
Curtis earned a political science degree from UW-Eau Claire and a law degree from UW-Madison Law School. He was admitted to the state bar in 2009. Curtis lives in Grafton with his wife and children, WILL said.
Curtis worked in litigation and government affairs at Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren in Milwaukee.
He served as outside counsel for county governments while working at Phillips Borowski of Mequon, which specialized in advising local officials after the state eliminated most public sector union rights in 2011. Curtis also was an Ozaukee County Board member and an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County.