GOP: EPA obstructed investigations

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday accused the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of obstructing independent investigations of employee misconduct.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) has been investigating personnel issues since it became public last year that EPA employee John Beale fraudulently claimed to be a CIA agent in order to skip work and still get paid. But GOP leaders said EPA is standing in the way of that probe.

“EPA leadership has engaged in an effort to keep the IG from doing its job,” chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said at the hearing, where he accused EPA of “obstructing the inspector general’s work.”

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The focus of the hearing was largely EPA’s office of homeland security. The 10-person office was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to help with homeland security investigations and reports directly to Administrator Gina McCarthy.

But OIG officials said the homeland security team oversteps its authority by interfering with investigations. One homeland security official, John Martin, carries a gun and badge, though his office has no law enforcement authority.

“As the official in charge of internal investigations at EPA, I am very concerned that vital information regarding suspected employee misconduct is being withheld from the OIG,” Patrick Sullivan, who leads OIG’s investigations team, told the panel.

Issa asked Sullivan to confirm that the homeland security office “has no statutory authority to be a law-enforcement organization.” Sullivan agreed.

OIG agent Elisabeth Heller Drake said an EPA official became aggressive with her in October when she tired to interview Martin and invaded her personal space. McCarthy later asked OIG to halt its investigation while Drake’s allegations were resolved, which OIG agreed to do.

“That is halting and stopping, and I believe, obstructing their ability to do their job,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). “The administrator of the EPA is saying to temporarily halt its investigation.”

Democrats downplayed the problems, saying they amount to a turf war.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel’s top Democrat, framed the issue as a jurisdictional dispute over whether the homeland security office or OIG ought to investigate employee misconduct allegations.

“The two offices do not agree on what role the IG should play in these cases or what obligations the EPA has to keep the IG informed of actions related to referrals made to the FBI,” Cummings said.

Cummings and his staff have tried in recent weeks to resolve the matter in recent days by working with officials from both offices, and EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe said the offices and FBI officials will meet this month to discuss it.

“What seems to be a problem here is that … there’s a question as to when disputes  that involve whether or not someone is disclosing classified information should be referred to the FBI or other agencies, and what is EPA’s obligation to include the Office of Inspector General within that process,” said Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.).

Tierney said EPA’s obstructions of OIG investigations are limited to matters that the homeland security office is involved in. Apart from that, EPA fully cooperates with OIG.

Perciasepe agreed. “The vast majority of the work we do with the IG is done efficiently, appropriately and with good resolve,” he said, adding that the problems the Oversight panel raised “are not the norm.”

In a later statement, EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia reiterated that the agency cooperates with OIG and the issue with Drake is an exception

“The incident that occurred at EPA on October 24, 2013, is an isolated instance, and does not represent the manner in which the EPA and its Inspector General work cooperatively on a daily basis,” she said.

Both EPA and OIG agreed to suspend the investigation while another agency’s inspector general looks into the matter, Purchia said.

Republicans used the hearing as an opportunity to hit EPA for a wide array of other problems, including personnel issues related to the Beale case.

“The Environmental Protection Agency is one of the most powerful and far-reaching agencies, but it has offered too little accountability for how its employees are using their time and taxpayers’ money, in fact, often abusing the American people by extending and expanding their jurisdiction,” Issa said.

He brought up multiple allegations of employees defrauding the agency by collecting paychecks while not working or otherwise improperly getting paid.

“John’s Beale behavior did not happen in a vacuum — in fact it was just the tip of the EPA’s fraudulent iceberg,” he said.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said the personnel issues at EPA and the government as a whole are “completely out of control.”

“We really need to sit down and talk in a bipartisan manner about getting civil service under control,” he said.