EPA Watchdog Says Agency Obstructs Its Investigations
Policy + Politics

EPA Watchdog Says Agency Obstructs Its Investigations

REUTERS/Lee Celano

A federal watchdog tasked with keeping tabs on the Environmental Protection Agency is accusing the EPA of intentionally obstructing it from doing its job—in some cases through intimidation.

Top officials from the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General will testify before Congress Wednesday about the agency’s alleged interference in internal investigations—including the high-profile case of John Beale, who was charged with fraud after swindling the government out of nearly $900,000.

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In prepared testimony obtained in advance by The Fiscal Times, the auditors say EPA officials did not notify the agency’s Inspector General about their suspicions regarding Beale for over a year.

Instead, they conducted their own investigation out of the agency’s little known Office of Homeland Security (OHS), which was created as a policy shop, not an investigation unit.

“Our investigation of Mr. Beale was delayed several months (and otherwise negatively impacted) due to the fact that the EPA’s Office of General Counsel and its Office of Homeland Security did not immediately notify the OIG of Mr. Beale’s misconduct,” said Patrick Sullivan, assistant inspector general for investigations.

Sullivan added that homeland security office’s own investigation of Beale—which included several interviews with the former EPA employee “damaged the OIG’s subsequent investigation.”

Related: How John Beale Swindled the EPA Out of $1 Million

The EPA’s Office of Environmental Compliance had previously ruled that the homeland security office has no law enforcement authority nor does it have authority to detail criminal investigations. Still, “the OHS continues to operate directly within the EPA’s Office of the Administrator Gina McCarthy as a de facto independent law enforcement and investigative organization,” Sullivan said.

The auditors claim that, by refusing to share information, the homeland security office has blocked them from completing other responsibilities like investigating threats against the agency and any computer network intrusions—a major concern as cybersecurity issues become more prevalent.

“Without a shred of doubt, I can say that OHS is preventing the OIG from doing what Congress has mandated us to do,” Sullivan said. “I wholeheartedly believe that the current situation represents a significant liability for the EPA, the Congress and the American taxpayers.”

Still, the agency denies the IG’s claims. In prepared testimony, Bob Perciasepe, deputy administrator for the EPA, tells the committee that the agency frequently works closely with the Inspector General’s office.

“Some have recently questioned the agency’s commitment to ensuring that the program offices within the EPA provide timely, complete assistance to the Office of the Inspector General,” Perciasepe said. “I can assure this committee that the EPA remains committed to ensuring that the Office of Inspector General is successful in its efforts to root out waste, fraud and abuse in every program across the agency.”

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The auditors also expressed concern that because the OHS operates directly within the EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s office, the homeland security office “has been able to operate with impunity from any effective OIG oversight,” Sullivan said. “Since OHS is essentially operating as a rogue law enforcement organization, we do not have access to that office’s cases. This block unquestionably has hamstrung the OIG’s ability to carry out its statutory mandate to investigate wrongdoing of EPA employees—including, potentially, those within OHS.”

In one instance, when an auditor attempted to speak with an OHS adviser about an ongoing investigation, she was greeted with hostility that resulted in her filing an assault complaint.

In congressional testimony, special agent Elisabeth Heller Drake said Steve Williams, an advisor at the homeland security office, “repeatedly jabbed his finger at me, merely inches from my chest, and as he got more aggressive, his complexion heated, his veins bulged and he began to sweat profusely,” she said. “It shocked me to be approached in this manner by what appeared to be a high-ranking EPA official. While Mr. Williams is not a large man, his inexplicable anger and aggressiveness in this professional office setting managed to leave me feeling intimidated.”

It is unclear exactly what the confrontation was regarding, however, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy sent out a memo telling the auditors office to cease the investigation until they were advised by legal counsel.

“Because OHS continues to block my office’s access to information essential to the OIG’s work, I cannot assure the committee that we are doing everything possible to root out other “John Beales” who may be at the EPA or other malfeasance of similar magnitude,” Sullivan said.

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