GOP lawmakers: EPA employee misconduct isn’t getting better

GOP lawmakers: EPA employee misconduct isn’t getting better
© Haiyun Jiang

House Republicans grilled officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Wednesday, saying the agency’s response to employee misconduct has not improved the situation.

In the latest in a series of hearings by the House Oversight Committee, Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzHouse Dems seek to make officials feel the pain Lawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay Top Utah paper knocks Chaffetz as he mulls run for governor: ‘His political career should be over’ MORE (R-Utah) and others in the GOP repeatedly slammed the EPA’s deputy chief for not doing more to stop rogue employees and properly punish them.

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But Democrats, along with the representatives of EPA and the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), said the EPA has greatly improved its oversight of employees over the past year, and the cases highlighted by the GOP are old.

The hearing focused on cases of alleged sexual misconduct, theft, a Ponzi scheme and other cases that the OIG had closed in the last two years. Employees involved usually retired before they could be punished, or were punished with short suspensions.

Chaffetz said other EPA employees suffer when their peers are not properly punished.

“It is a topic we’ve addressed a few times, but it doesn’t seem to be getting better. And so, we will continue to highlight this as long as it takes, because, in my opinion, the EPA is one of the most toxic places in the federal government to work,” Chaffetz said at the hearing.

“One has to wonder if EPA’s culture and lack of accountability is a contributing factor to tragedies like the Gold King Mine spill or the Flint drinking water crisis,” he said. “The status quo cannot continue, and the committee will continue to investigate the EPA until cultural changes and managers and employees are held accountable for their failures.”

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) accused the EPA of being hypocritical, treating companies accused of violating environmental laws much worse than its own employees who break laws.

“This committee has heard time and again of the EPA literally plagued with constant employee misconduct,” he said. “And yet at the same time, EPA routinely goes after businesses across this country for much less serious offenses and throws fine after fine after fine to businesses that often are doing virtually nothing in comparison.”

In response to other Oversight hearings and high-profile cases, like that of fake CIA spy John Beale, the EPA has made some significant changes. The changes include biweekly meetings with top EPA and OIG officials to discuss current misconduct cases and new limits on how much administrative leave workers can take.

“The isolated misconduct of a few does not reflect, and must not overshadow, the dedication and hard work of over 15,000 EPA employees who commit themselves every day to the important work of the agency,” said A. Stanley Meiburg, the agency's acting deputy administrator.

“We have and will continue to work with the powers granted to us by Congress and the administrative tools at our disposal to ensure improper conduct is met with appropriate penalties and, conversely, that excellence is rewarded accordingly,” he said.

Patrick Sullivan, who leads the OIG’s investigations office, said the changes have helped a lot.

“These cases are now being addressed faster and more consistently by EPA management,” he said. “I believe that this process can serve as a best-practices model for the federal government.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the panel, welcomed the changes, but said the situation can always get better.

“The outcomes from improved coordination are indeed promising. Both EPA and the IG have stated that the new procedures have decreased the time it takes for action on reports of employee misconduct,” he said.

“Serious misconduct is rare. But we have to take it seriously.”

Sullivan told the panel that the top problem his office has with investigating misconduct cases at this point is a lack of resources.

“We don’t have enough agents to do the investigations,” he said, adding he’s lost funding for about 70 agents in the last five years, and he only has 289 now. “So I’m always trying to play catch-up.”