Mike Stoker, former Santa Barbara County supervisor and more recently regional administrator for the EPA’s West Coast Region 9, has sued his former boss, former EPA director Andrew Wheeler, and three other former high-ranking EPA administrators for $2.9 million, charging them with defamation of character. Stoker — a mainstay of Santa Barbara County’s Republican establishment since the 1980s — was appointed to run the EPA’s West Coast operations in July 2018 and was subsequently fired in February 2020 with no explanation given other than it was “not personal.”
Brash, garrulous, and outspoken, Stoker did not go quietly. Not only did he insist his termination was, in fact, very personal, but he also charged in various media reports that he’d been fired because he worked too collaboratively and effectively with high-ranking California Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. While pledging political fealty to President Donald Trump, Stoker made it clear there was more to the story and clearer still that he planned to go public with it at some future date.
Shortly thereafter, high-ranking EPA administrators Doug Benevento, Ryan Jackson, and Corry Schiermeyer all unloaded on Stoker, stating he’d been fired because he’d somehow abused the travel perks that came with the post. In one such statement, it was explained, Stoker was terminated “for severe neglect and incompetent administration of his duties.” In another, it was stated, “Mike was too interested in travel for the sake of travel and ignored necessary decision-making required of a regional administrator.”
In his lawsuit, filed in federal court, Stoker maintained that he cleared every single trip he took with the deputy regional administrator or the assistant regional administrator and then with the EPA’s travel offices. Stoker added in his pleading that he’d never been reprimanded orally or written up for poor job performance. He pointed out that the same individuals who would come to castigate him for the number of trips he took had publicly defended such travel in media remarks before his termination.
Stoker’s attorney Jordan Hankey argued that Wheeler and the three other defendants knew that Stoker’s travel record was, in fact, clean, but stated otherwise anyway. This, he argued, qualifies as “malice” under the legal definition, which allows Stoker — as a public figure — to file a defamation claim. “Defendants, each of them, knew that the published statements about Plaintiff Stoker were false at the time they were prepared, approved of, and made,” he wrote in Stoker’s complaint.
Stoker — an attorney who served as Santa Barbara County supervisor from 1986 to 1994 — has been active in statewide and national Republican circles for decades; he is credited with instigating the “Lock ‘er up” chant directed at then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Republican National Convention. In his pleadings on behalf of Stoker, Hankey claimed Wheeler and the other three defendants “meant to convey that 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.” This, he added, “exposed Stoker to hatred, contempt, ridicule, and shame and discouraged others from associating or dealing with him.”
Hankey clarified that he is suing Wheeler — who has been replaced since Joe Biden was inaugurated as president — and the three others individually. Making false and defamatory statements, Hankey added, falls well outside the scope of their professional responsibilities. He and Stoker are also petitioning for an administrative hearing to factually clear Stoker’s name.
Hankey stated that Stoker, who took home $192,000 a year as regional administrator, has suffered financially by his termination. He has not been offered any new jobs, Hankey stated. Stoker is now 65 and had expected to continue working until the age of 75, according to Hankey. Based on that arithmetic, Stoker has sought $960,000 as compensation for future economic on top of $192,000 in past economic loss. On top of that, Stoker has asked for $200,000 for harm to reputation, $50,000 for feelings of shame, and another $1.5 million in punitive damages. Those demands had been made on December 17, 2020. If the EPA settled for $850,000, he said in the same note, he’d be willing to drop any claims and Wheeler and the other administrators.
As regional director, Stoker’s globe-trotting schedule had been the subject of some raised eyebrows, media comment, and internal review. Ryan Jackson, one of the parties named in Stoker’s lawsuit, had vigorously defended Stoker’s travel, noting that Region 9 encompassed eight time zones, 148 tribes, and 50 million people.
Stoker, who lives in Carpinteria, is currently working on a book about his experiences inside the Environmental Protection Agency.
This article was underwritten in part by the Mickey Flacks Journalism Fund for Social Justice, a proud, innovative supporter of local news. To make a contribution go to sbcan.org/journalism_fund. For other articles supported by the Flacks Fund, click here.