Contending his reputation has been harmed, Michael Stoker has filed a federal lawsuit alleging defamation against four top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials who reportedly spoke out after his ouster.
Stoker, a staunch Republican from Santa Barbara County, served as Region 9 administrator for the EP from May 2018 until he was terminated in February 2020.
Defendants in the lawsuit include Virginia resident Andrew R. Wheeler, then-EPA acting administrator and Stoker’s supervisor; Colorado resident Douglas Benevento, then-EPA associate deputy administrator; Ryan Jackson, then-EPA chief of staff; and Texas resident Corry Schiermeyer, then-EPA associate administrator for public affairs, plus other unnamed defendants.
The lawsuit, filed by Santa Barbara attorney Jordan Hankey, alleges that EPA officials made several statements about Stoker’s job performance, claiming he was “too interested in travel for the sake of travel,” and ignored necessary decision-making required of a regional administrator.
Another was quoted as saying Stoker was relieved of his job “for severe neglect and incompetent administration of his duties.”
“In the days and weeks that followed, and as a result of relying on defendants’ statements issued February 6, 2020, several news agencies made reports that damaged Plaintiff Stoker’s reputation, presented him in a false light that resulted in disparaging his good name and reputation, and caused him emotional distress and economic loss,” the civil lawsuit contends.
“Defendants’ statements concerning Plaintiff Stoker were prepared, approved of and made with malice, as they were knowingly untrue and intended to harm Plaintiff Stoker.”
At the time of his firing, Stoker asked for the reason only to be told “this wasn’t personal.”
“Both on their face, and because of the facts and circumstances known to persons who read or heard the statements, it was reasonably understood that defendants meant to convey that Plaintiff Stoker is a fraud, a liar, someone who should not be trusted, and someone who is neglectful and incompetent in the administration of his duties. Defendants’ statement exposed Plaintiff Stoker to hatred, contempt, ridicule, and shame, and discouraged others from associating or dealing with him.”
All of the named defendants appear to have left the EPA prior to or at the end of the Trump administration.
It does not appear the defendants had been served with the civil complaint, which was filed Jan. 27 in the U.S. District Court’s Central District of California. Civil complaints represent plaintiffs’ side of the allegations, and the defendants are expected to file a response in the coming weeks.
Stoker said he waited until after the President Donald Trump left office to file the lawsuit, and claimed senior EPA employees, tribal leaders and others would be willing to testify on his behalf.
The lawsuit seeks more than $75,000, claiming he has suffered damages including harm to his reputation, emotional harm, exposure to content, ridicule and shame, lost income, lost earning capacity and more.
EPA’s Region 9 office, based in San Francisco, oversees the agency’s activities in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, the Pacific islands (including Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands), and 148 tribal nations.
Prior to joining EPA, Stoker , a longtime attorney whose license remains inactive, had a long history of advocating for oil companies and the ag industry. He most recently was director of government affairs for UnitedAg, the second-largest agricultural association in California.
Stoker previously served on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in two stints in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and unsuccessfully ran for the state Assembly, state Senate and Congress.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.