Can somebody with more knowledge and experience tell me if something extraordinary is going on in the office of Kevin J. O’Connor, the U.S. Attorney for the Connecticut district? It certainly seems extraordinary to me — and deserving of wider notice and praise.

O’Connor, you may remember, successfully prosecuted the operations director of the Fishers Island ferry for dumping raw sewage into Long Island Sound and the Thames River, near New London, Connecticut. The operations director, Mark Easter, is going to jail and paying a $10,000 fine.

Now comes news that O’Connor has gone after Operations Management International, a company that manages 116 municipally-owned sewage treatment plants around the country, for permit violations at plants in New Haven and Norwalk, Connecticut. O’Connor nailed them for failing to properly report violations that were in and of themselves relatively minor (or so it seems to me).

But his office used the prosecution as an opportunity to get OMI to put into place a number of significant improvements — at a cost of $6 million — in its nationwide operation. Here, from the Deferred Prosecution Agreement (MS Word doc), is what O’Connor and his staff have gotten from OMI:

A nationwide compliance and auditing program … This new program includes a detailed checklist of compliance and reporting requirements … at each particular site. Legal and technical teams now provide more careful review and dedicated assistance to each facility. This review and audit program has resulted in several voluntary disclosures to appropriate State agencies across the United States and has been applied to all of OMI’s 116 plants nationally. The President of the company telephoned every Project Manager and instructed him or her on the importance of the program and that this protocol was mandatory and would be the subject of compliance audits.

… increased the personnel and resources dedicated to environmental compliance …

OMI appointed a Director of Environmental Compliance to provide national leadership in the design and implementation of environmental compliance training and compliance assurance programs. Six new persons were added to assist with these programs, augmenting OMI’s compliance and reporting group. In addition to the plant-specific permit compliance checklists and training support described above, these personnel implement the nationwide compliance audit program.  Two major training courses were provided to all OMI personnel….

The training has included case studies designed to focus employees on real life situations.  This culture of compliance as a top priority is reinforced by the furnishing to all employees of a Standard Operating Procedure making clear that full compliance, and reporting of any non-compliance, is every employee’s job.  The first round of compliance audits at OMI’s plants has been completed and followed by corrective action plans to remedy any deficiencies.  The program calls for additional audits at three year intervals, or more frequently as needed, as well as focused reviews whenever problems arise.  

OMI has installed a telephone “helpline” for its employees nationwide to report any perceived or suspected compliance or ethical problems and has established a process by which issues raised can be quickly brought to the attention of upper management.  This “helpline” can be accessed by e-mail or fax as well as by telephone.  This establishment of the helpline was accompanied by the delivery of enhanced ethics training for all employees.

OMI also has kicked in $1 million to establish an endowed chair in environmental studies at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in New London, and $1 million for environmental improvement programs at the New Haven treatment plant.

All this might indicate that, having been confronted with problems, OMI wanted to do the right thing. Or it might indicate that OMI really, really didn’t want to tangle with the U.S. Attorney. Whatever. The result is that O’Connor decided to forego prosecution for the time being and to let OMI off the hook if the company keeps its nose clean for two years.

More importantly, he has used a handful of minor violations on Long Island Sound to trigger a useful bunch of corporate reforms nationwide.