EPA:

Enforcers try PR to net fugitives, shed 'tree hugger' image

First in an occasional series on EPA's fugitives list.

Alessandro Giordano is a 32-year-old sports car enthusiast who has brown eyes and a charming smile. He's slightly taller than his 73-year-old father, Carlo Giordano, but takes after his dad when it comes to his full head of dark brown hair and his business sense.

If you're traveling overseas, perhaps to Rome, and happen to run into either Giordano, U.S. EPA asks that you alert the authorities immediately.

That is because Alessandro Giordano and Carlo Giordano are both founding members of EPA's list of wanted environmental fugitives.

EPA officials emphasize that its online fugitive directory, www.epa.gov/fugitives, is not a traditional "most wanted" list because it includes any alleged environmental lawbreaker who has chosen to run from the law. But the site, which has become one of the most visited pages on the EPA website, is clearly designed in the same style as other prominent most-wanted lists. It includes wanted posters, warnings about which environmental criminals are known to carry weapons and instructions on what to do if you see a fugitive.

EPA's wanted list currently includes 16 alleged environmental law breakers who have gone on the lam. Since its start in December 2008, EPA can count five fugitives who have been captured and two others who have turned themselves in. EPA's Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training (OCEFT) -- as the program is officially known -- would love to add the Giordanos to its list of victories.

Authorities believe the father and son fled to Italy seven years ago after they were indicted on charges stemming from their efforts to import sports cars that did not meet federal emission standards.

According to their indictment, Carlo and Alessandro Girodano had a particular interest in Italian-made Alfa Romeos. The two would travel to Europe to buy cars and then ship them to the United States through their Nashville-based company, Autodelta USA Inc.

"They were importing cars that were designed for the European market, which had less stringent safety and air pollution controls," recalled Richard Cutler, the former assistant U.S. attorney who worked with agents from EPA, the Department of Transportation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to bring indictments against the Giordanos. "These guys were fraudsters. This was probably the tip of the iceberg for their fraud."

The Giordanos allegedly sold or tried to sell about two dozen Alpha Romeos before authorities caught up with them. Because several of the transactions took place on the West Coast, authorities brought the case in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, and charged the men with 11 counts including wire fraud, conspiracy and making false statements.

But Cutler, who now works in the private sector, never got the chance to try the Giordanos.

In December 2003, after they were arraigned, the father and son got permission to travel back to Nashville. They then disappeared, and in so doing made themselves candidates for the fugitives list that was launched five years later.

PR boost

Over the past two years, EPA's wanted list has served an important function for the criminal enforcement program besides simply getting the word out about environmental fugitives like the Giordanos.

It has also become a successful public relations tool for the program.

"We realized at the beginning, when we were having discussions about the development of this site, that it would have a two-prong value to us," said Fred Burnside, who helped begin the fugitives list and retired Thursday after two years as director of OCEFT.

"One was public relations and potentially deterrence, and the second part would be to actually locate these fugitives that have eluded either the law or the courts."

In March 2009, just three months after the site went live, EPA earned plenty of press when it was able to scratch Larkin Baggett off the list. Baggett was being sought for dumping hazardous waste in a Utah sewer system and ended up getting 20 years in jail.

OCEFT's most recent capture came in October when authorities finally caught up with Albania Deleon. Deleon fled to the Dominican Republic in 2008 rather than face prison time for falsely certifying that hundreds of individuals had taken asbestos removal training. She is set to be sentenced later this month.

Those positive headlines have become especially important after OCEFT received a rash of negative publicity last fall.

In September, OCEFT's Criminal Investigation Division came under fire by an environmental watchdog group that accused the agency of shirking its duties.

Through documents obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) found OCEFT's docket of cases and number of investigators had shrunk under the Obama administration. PEER charged that the decline in investigators and cases pointed to a lack of leadership in the program. In October, an independent review commissioned by agency brass found a host of administrative problems within the program.

Results of that review were announced by Cynthia Giles, EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement, in the same memo that she informed the staff of the upcoming retirement of Burnside and the reassignment of Becky Barnes, the director of the office's Criminal Investigation Division (CID).

'You get hit from both sides'

The hubbub last fall was not the first time that the criminal enforcement program has come under scrutiny since its creation in 1982.

In 2001, the program was roundly criticized for being overzealous. Those charges were sparked by a "60 Minutes" piece that featured two plant owners who claimed to be the victims of overaggressive EPA enforcement tactics. The segment was notable for the men's description of how EPA agents raided their businesses wearing flak jackets and carrying automatic pistols.

In 23 years with the program, including two years as its director, Burnside said he knew too well that an agency could be criticized for being too aggressive and then for not being aggressive enough.

"It's the same story with any federal law enforcement agency," he said. "You get hit from both sides. And you still have to do your mission while all that's going on."

Cutler said EPA's fugitives list has been an important tool in helping the public better understand what OCEFT's mission is.

"To a certain extent it identifies them again as a law enforcement agency which is what they are," Cutler said. "I think people see the EPA and they think of tree huggers, and it's not that. There's a criminal wing to it."

Fugitive cases make up a small total of the 750 open criminal cases that OCEFT has open at any given time.

The office is made up of 385 staff and agents including 125 forensic specialists and scientists who work at the National Enforcement Investigations Center in Colorado. The office charged 289 defendants in 2010, up from 200 in 2009. But the total number of defendants was still well below the 372 charged in 2001 or 360 charged in 2000. The office also topped 300 defendants charged in 2002 and 2005.

"I think EPA CID should be treated with the same respect that the FBI is and that DEA is and that ATF is," said Cutler, the former assistant U.S. attorney. "They are doing important work and a lot of time they're dealing with dangerous individuals."

As EPA does with all its fugitives, the Giordanos have been listed on Interpol watch lists. But nearly seven years later, the pair remain on the run.

Cutler said that shortly after they fled, federal investigators found evidence that indicated the two men were in Italy, but he also said it is possible they may have returned to the United States.

On his final day on the job, Burnside said he was not worried about the Giordano search becoming a cold case.

"The longer the pressure is on, the better chance we have of locating them," he said. "I think we have the same chance of catching them now as we did on the first day. ... They'll remain on the site until they're captured or they surrender."

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