EPA Defends Hiring Wave Amid Senate Interest

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By Anthony Adragna

Sept. 21 — The Environmental Protection Agency defended its staff hiring practices Sept. 21 amid criticism from Senate Republicans that the agency was hiring waves of new employees to improve its position as Congress considers how to fund the agency next year.

Seven Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee questioned in a Sept. 18 letter whether the planned hiring of 458 new employees by the end of the month was “absolutely necessary” for EPA to fulfill its mission of protecting human health and the environment.

Liz Purchia, an EPA spokeswoman, said there was nothing unusual about the hires in response to the congressional interest.

“EPA is hiring qualified people using the different hiring authorities that [the Office of Personnel Management] has approved,” Purchia said. “These individuals go through the same hiring and security clearance process as any other federal employee. They have been deemed qualified according to OPM's human resource rules and admitted only when they receive a security clearance.”

Agency staffing levels have declined by thousands in recent years amid a flurry of retirements, buyouts and budget cuts. For fiscal year 2015, Congress funded 15,335 full-time equivalents at the EPA, but the agency reported having just 14,493 as of Sept. 2.

The Republican senators argued the EPA must show why the hundreds of planned new hires are needed to fulfill the agency's mission, given its pace of rulemakings had not slowed despite the buyout of nearly 500 employees in 2014.

Senators Say Oversight Needed 

In their letter, the senators said additional congressional oversight was also necessary to ensure the EPA is “safeguarding taxpayer dollars and operating in the most efficient manner” given the example of former senior official John Beale, who defrauded the EPA of nearly $900,000 and received a sentence of 32 months in prison from a federal judge.

“It appears EPA has made little progress in getting ‘its house' in order since the Beale scandal and the agency may be vulnerable to greater abuses through recently-planned mass hires,” the senators wrote. “If EPA truly needs more federal employees to carry out core missions, it is an admission that the agency has been advancing a regulatory agenda at the expense of those missions.”

Republican Sens. David Vitter (La.), Jim Inhofe (Okla.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Mike Rounds (S.D.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska) and John Boozman (Ark.) signed onto the letter.

EPA hiring practices have drawn scrutiny from the agency's own Office of Inspector General. In July, the office found the EPA mishandled a recent wave of employee buyouts and early retirements.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The Sept. 18 from the seven Republican senators is available at http://1.usa.gov/1Jl4ZOD.