RALEIGH — An Asheville businessman is left with more questions than answers after a May 2 visit to his home by two armed special agents from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, accompanied by an Asheville police officer, apparently to question him about what the EPA interpreted as a “cryptic and concerning” email.

The incident is under investigation by the office of Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.

Larry Keller, who runs a computer consulting business from his Asheville home, sent an email April 27 to the EPA in an attempt to reach Al Armendariz, EPA regional administrator for Region 6. Two days earlier, a video from 2010 was posted on YouTube in which Armendariz said his enforcement philosophy was to “crucify” officials from big oil and gas companies.

The video became a sensation on blogs and on Twitter, and on many conservative news websites. After seeing it, Keller told Carolina Journal, he was troubled by the comments and just wanted to express his concerns to Armendariz, a public official whose salary is paid by taxpayers. “I wanted to know why someone in his position would say what he did. I wanted to question his reasoning and principles. It’s all about freedom of speech,” Keller said.

An Internet search for Armendariz’s contact information directed him to email David Gray, director of external affairs for EPA Region 6. Keller sent the following email: “Hello Mr. Gray-Do you have Mr. Armendariz’s contact information so we can say hello? -Regards-Larry Keller.”

Armendariz resigned April 30, after the ensuing national uproar over his comments. The EPA agents arrived at Keller’s home May 2.

Keller told CJ that Special Agent Michael Woods asked if he had sent an email to an EPA employee. At first, Keller said no, but then remembered the email to Gray. At that point, Woods produced a copy of the email and asked if it was the email he sent.

The second agent said Keller’s choice of words could be interpreted in many different ways and asked if Keller thought the content was suspicious in any way. Keller said he didn’t have anything to hide and the email postscript had his company logo and website address.

Investigation not concluded

The discourse quickly became adversarial, Keller said. When Keller asked for a copy of the email, Woods said it was impossible because the investigation was not yet concluded.

At that point, Keller heard his wife arriving home and asked the agents to stay so his wife could meet them and “see what all the fuss was about.” Woods said they had to get going and the trio started toward the back staircase, Keller said.

Keller had asked for the agents’ business cards, but after initially saying they had them, they later told Keller they were “out of cards.” He insisted they give him the name of their supervisor, and Woods wrote the name and number on a piece of paper, Keller said.

Keller said he followed them outside and noticed a police cruiser parked in the neighbor’s driveway. The agents left without acknowledging his wife, Keller said. He also learned after contacting the Asheville Police Department that another officer had remained in the cruiser throughout the interview.

Life-changing experience

This incident has been a life-changing experience, Keller said, as he’d never felt he had any reason to fear his government.

The agents did not provide a reason for their visit when they appeared on his doorstep. They simply asked if Keller could sit and chat with them, so Keller invited them into his home and to the back porch.

Agents began by asking about his consulting business and seemed very interested in the nature of his business — data visualization and analysis.

After the meeting with the agents, Keller made several attempts to reach Michael Hill, the agents’ supervisor in Atlanta. Eventually, Hill returned Keller’s phone call and said that orders had come down from Washington to check out every communication with Armendariz, as there had been so many. Hill gave the impression that everyone who had tried to reach Armendariz had received a visit from special agents.

Later, Keller got an email from Hill, in which he apologized, saying, “I understand that you were inconvenienced when you consented to be interviewed by our agents.”

Hill’s email stated the EPA could not provide specific details other than it had wanted to know Keller’s intentions, given the timing of the email and in light of the “many threats against Dr. Armendariz” received at the same time Keller’s email was sent.

The only recourse Hill provided for Keller to learn more about the incident was to submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

Demanding full explanation

Keller told CJ he’s determined to get a full explanation of why he was targeted in the first place and whether the investigation has concluded. He’s asking for a thorough review of EPA protocol and has emailed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson almost daily since the incident, but has yet to receive a response from her.

It appears that Keller’s emails to Jackson and to Michael Daggett, the assistant deputy inspector general for the EPA, were forwarded to Patrick Sullivan, assistant inspector general, office of investigations organization.

In his emailed response, Sullivan defended the EPA’s actions, saying a thorough review of the facts failed to find “any unprofessional behavior by EPA OIG personnel” and that the agents had acted in accordance with “established Federal law enforcement policies and procedures.”

Even though Sullivan’s message says Keller “answered the questions and the suspicious nature of the email was resolved,” he is not convinced the investigation is over, since the agents stated the case was still open as they left his home. Also, the absence of any official written report to that effect from either the Asheville Police Department or the EPA worries him.

The email also said Keller should contact Craig Ulmer, who supervises field operations for the office of investigations, if Keller feels his concerns have not been addressed properly, and said he could speak by phone with Ulmer, or, if necessary, arrange a personal meeting.

Burr’s office investigating

After contacting Burr, Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, and U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-11th, Keller said only Burr’s office has responded. Burr’s legislative assistant Matthew Dockham told Keller by phone that “he should take this to the nth degree at the EPA.”

In an email to CJ, Burr press secretary David Ward confirmed that Burr’s staff has been in touch with Keller. Ward also said the senator’s office has initiated an inquiry with EPA and “Senator Burr intends to pursue this matter vigorously.”

CJ’s phone calls to the Asheville Police Department and EPA’s Sullivan have not been returned. CJ has received a copy of the call for service from the police department, but it provides no incident ID, only the date and time the EPA requested assistance and Keller’s home address.

On May 29, CJ called the Asheville Police Department again to see if the officer’s report had been filed. Nearly a month after the incident, there is still no case number or report.

During a May 11 interview with Pete Kaliner on WWNC-AM 570, Keller said he believed the EPA may have thought he was gathering data for the Republican Party, since his company deals with data visualization and analysis and he’s been active in GOP politics for some time.

Keller has prepared a written response to Sullivan and plans to request a face-to-face meeting with EPA officials.

Karen McMahan is a contributor to Carolina Journal.