Marriage of EPA leader, lawyer raises ethical questions in Missouri sewer case

When the Environmental Protection Agency came after the leaky Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, officials in St. Louis went looking for an attorney.

And they hired one — all the way across the state in Kansas City.

St. Louis officials explained that Terry Satterlee is one of the best environmental attorneys around.

She also is the wife of Bill Rice, who leads the EPA's Region 7, headquartered in Kansas City, Kan., overseeing St. Louis.

One party to the lawsuit questions whether it is proper for the head of an agency that is suing a sewer district to be married to the attorney who is defending the sewer district. Millions of dollars in penalties and legal fees are on the line in the case.

"She sleeps every night with the head of Region 7," said Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, which has joined the EPA in the suit against the sewer district.

"How do you keep from being influenced?" she said of Rice.

Indeed, the marriage represents the thorniest of conflict-of-interest issues, say ethical experts. It is a puzzle with no easy answers, they say.

EPA officials say the conflict is not a problem because federal statute and regulations address such issues and those are followed in Rice's case.

Rice is acting EPA regional administrator, and over the years his position has alternated between acting and deputy administrator, second in command over a four-state region. Rice fills the top administrator position when it becomes vacant because of changes in presidential administrations or for other reasons.

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