When senior attorney John Cruden leaves the Department of Justice next week to become president of the Environmental Law Institute, he will say goodbye to the biggest case of his career: the investigation into the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Cruden, 65, who oversees the environmental enforcement and environmental crimes sections in the Environment and Natural Resources Division, has had a key supervisory role in the civil investigation into the April 20, 2010, explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
His impending move to ELI, a nonpartisan group focused on environmental policy, was first revealed late last month (Greenwire, May 26). Cruden, whose move coincides with his retirement from government service, will start his new job July 18.
DOJ and attorneys familiar with the probe say Cruden's departure is unlikely to cause many problems, in part because of the sheer size of the investigation. A separate, parallel criminal investigation is also under way, led by DOJ's criminal division.
Another veteran career lawyer, Bruce Gelber, will take over as acting deputy assistant attorney general and assume Cruden's responsibilities concerning Deepwater Horizon, according to a DOJ statement.
Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno, who heads the division, said "this transition will be seamless and work on the enforcement action will press forward unabated."
Former DOJ lawyer James Rubin, now in private practice with SNR Denton, described Cruden as "an amazing guy whose counsel and expertise will be sorely missed."
But, he added, the Environment and Natural Resources Division is "a very strong and resilient place with other excellent managers," and Cruden's departure is unlikely to have "any significant impact" on the Deepwater Horizon case.
Charles Tebbutt, an attorney representing the Center for Biological Diversity in the civil litigation over Deepwater Horizon in the Eastern District of Louisiana -- which involves both government and private claims against BP PLC, the well operator and other companies that worked on the doomed rig -- agreed with that assessment.
"There are so many people involved in the case, I'm sure someone will step to the top," he said.
Cruden was a fixture at DOJ, having worked there for 21 years. He twice led the Environment and Natural Resources Division in an acting capacity, most recently from January to November 2009, prior to Moreno's confirmation.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that Cruden was "an outstanding public servant and I am proud to have known and served with him through the years."
Worked on Exxon Valdez, Love Canal
A West Point graduate who served in Vietnam, Cruden has worked on all of DOJ's big environmental cases of the past two decades, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement and the Superfund case involving the Love Canal site in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
In an interview in DOJ's library yesterday, Cruden was reluctant to talk about the Deepwater Horizon case but conceded that it was tough to leave with the litigation still at a relatively early stage.
"I have spent every day since April 23 on that case," he said.
Exxon Valdez was big, he added, but "without question, particularly for economic loss, clearly Deepwater Horizon is bigger."
Despite his continuing interest in the case, Cruden was immediately interested in the opening at ELI, prompted by the retirement of the current president, Leslie Carothers, who served in the position for eight years.
"It's a great opportunity, but it's bittersweet, because what I'm doing, I love," he said.
As for his goals at ELI, which prides itself on its dedication to purely legal matters rather than political trench warfare, Cruden said he is still figuring that out.
What he is sure about is that ELI can play a role in helping find some common ground on environmental legal issues that remain in flux, whether it be Superfund law or the scope of the Clean Water Act.
"I think right now there are so many environmental law issues we haven't resolved or haven't played out in the courts," he said.
ELI can help "narrow the debate" in those areas, he added.
That could include some issues relating to the touchy question of climate change, although Cruden insisted that ELI did not want to get dragged into the political debate.
"ELI can play a very, very useful role in helping people through the maze," he said.