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Lobbyist's access and DEP treatment raise questions about unusual handling of wetlands permit

To get a wetlands permit from a state water agency, the owners of the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank hired engineers and a law firm. When that permit didn't give them what they wanted, they took an unusual step.

They hired Jacksonville lobbyist Edward "Ward" Blakely Jr. and took their case to the state Department of Environmental Protection — an agency headed by someone Blakely knew well: former Jacksonville business executive Herschel Vinyard.

But DEP Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn says politics play no role in the agency's permitting process.

"We do not consider politics or public opinion in making permit decisions," he said. "We've got some really excellent science and policy people in the agency."

The way DEP has handled the Highlands Ranch permit already has been the subject of two inspector general investigations. The first, in June, cleared the agency's top wetlands expert, Connie Bersok, who had refused to approve the permit to build a wetlands mitigation bank. Her bosses had accused her of leaking damaging information about the project.

More from Craig Pittman here.

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