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EPA IG Says Agency Division Obstructed Investigations, Cites Employee Misconduct

Friday, May 9, 2014

By Anthony Adragna  

May 7 --An obscure division within Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy's office has obstructed investigations systematically, the agency's independent watchdog told a congressional panel.

In addition, multiple other instances of employee misconduct have cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars, two officials from the EPA's Office of Inspector General told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The 10-person EPA Office of Homeland Security, which is located within the administrator's office, has prevented the inspector general from conducting investigations by refusing to provide information and forcing employees to sign non-disclosure agreements, the officials said. One of those officials, EPA Assistant Inspector General Patrick Sullivan, called the office a “rogue law enforcement agency.”

In one-high profile incident last fall, an employee within that office verbally assaulted and intimidated an inspector general investigator. Criminal charges were considered but eventually not pursued.

Allan Williams, a deputy assistant inspector general, also testified that investigators have located additional evidence of employee misconduct, including one instance of an employee who watched pornography for two hours to six hours daily and remains employed at the agency.

'Truly a Broken Agency.'

Scrutiny of the agency's investigatory practices intensified following the arrest and conviction of John Beale, a former senior policy adviser, who pleaded guilty to defrauding the EPA of nearly $900,000 and received a sentence of 32 months in prison from a federal judge.

“This is truly a broken agency,” Darrell Issa, the committee chairman, said. “John's Beale behavior did not happen in a vacuum--in fact, it was just the tip of the EPA's fraudulent iceberg.”

EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe told the committee the agency wants to resolve a dispute over which office has the jurisdiction to investigate allegations of employee misconduct that have potential national security implications, and the agency plans to hold a meeting next week between the groups to discuss possible solutions. He also said he would order the Office of Homeland Security to share the information sought by the inspector general.

The EPA established the Office of Homeland Security in 2003 through an administrative order. The office has no authority by statute to conduct investigations or enforce the law, Sullivan said.

Office Has 'Hamstrung’ Investigations

“Under the heavy cloak of 'national security,’ the Office of Homeland Security has repeatedly rebuffed and refused to cooperate with the OIG's ongoing requests for information or cooperation,” Sullivan said in testimony. “This block unquestionably has hamstrung the Office of Inspector General's ability to carry out its statutory mandate to investigate wrongdoing of EPA employees.”

The alleged obstruction culminated in October 2013 when Elisabeth Heller Drake, a special agent with the EPA inspector general's office, reported she was “attacked and intimidated” during the course of an investigation.

The Federal Protective Service investigated the incident and prepared an arrest warrant for an offense known as “intent to frighten; assault,” but a U.S. attorney ultimately referred it back to the EPA for administrative action.

In addition, investigators are examining the behavior of a career EPA employee who acknowledged downloading more than 7,000 pornographic files to a shared agency server and confessed to spending between two hours and six hours daily watching the material while at work.

The employee, who admitted to watching the pornography since 2010, received performance awards during that time and could face criminal charges from the Justice Department, according to the committee.

Complex Administrative Procedures

Democrats and Republicans expressed concern the agency hadn't fired the employee, but Perciasepe said the agency had to follow complex administrative procedures before terminating an employee.

Perciasepe said the agency did a “pretty good job” overall at blocking offensive content but wasn't aware of the details of that investigation.

Another employee produced no work for the agency over the past five years while working from home but received roughly $600,000 in salary because her supervisor manually approved time cards he inputted. Despite completing no work due to severe multiple sclerosis, the employee received a performance award.

According to investigators, the employee didn't have a building pass for EPA facilities or a computer connection to EPA servers.

A different EPA employee continued receiving pay from the agency for an additional one or two years after moving into a retirement home and despite completing no work from the agency. The DOJ is considering criminal charges.

Finally, a senior agency official sold weight loss and jewelry products from her office during work hours using her EPA e-mail address, investigators reported. The employee hired 17 family members and friends for paid internship positions and gave a bonus to her daughter, who also worked at the EPA.

Other EPA Problems

Investigators have completed several reports in response to the Beale case. Most recently, the EPA inspector general reported that 13 agency employees may have improperly received retention bonuses and nearly 200 EPA-issued passports cannot be located (see related story).

The inspector general also concluded the misconduct of Beth Craig, a senior official in the agency's air office, partially enabled John Beale to defraud the agency of nearly $900,000.

 

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

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