EPA watchdog slams agency head as his chief of staff refuses to comply with investigations

EPA watchdog slams agency head as his chief of staff refuses to comply with investigations
© Stefani Reynolds

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) independent watchdog criticized agency head Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies EPA rule proposes to expand limitations on scientific studies Overnight Energy: Fight between EPA watchdog, agency lawyers heats up | Top EPA official under investigation over document destruction | DOJ issues subpoenas to automakers in California emissions pact MORE for his resistance to addressing his chief of staff's refusal to cooperate with investigations.

A letter released Wednesday from EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) outlines multiple instances in which Ryan Jackson, Wheeler’s chief of staff, refused to turn over documents or answer questions as the watchdog investigated how EPA officials obtained advance copies of outside testimony designated for lawmakers.

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“The particularly serious or flagrant problem I am reporting concerns two instances of refusal to fully cooperate and provide information to the [inspector general], one during an audit and one during an administrative investigation. They center on a single employee -- Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson,” wrote acting Inspector General Charles Sheehan in an Oct. 29 letter that was released Wednesday. 

The “Seven Day Letter,” a term used to describe the process used to notify Congress of serious roadblocks to investigations, outlines both the ways Jackson tried to sideline investigators, as well as Sheehan’s repeated attempts to discuss the matter with Wheeler.

“Mr. Jackson's cooperation has been patiently sought multiple times over protracted periods by OIG auditors and investigators. Auditors asked of him merely a brief email reply. Investigators requested to interview him. Both matters, after Mr. Jackson's repeated delays and refusals, were elevated, in writing, to you and/or other senior agency leaders in a final hope for cooperation,” Sheehan writes.

But his pleas for Jackson to fully cooperate were met with silence by Wheeler, who did not respond to requests from Sheehan for a week. 

“Since October 21, 2019, neither you nor any agency official has contacted OIG on this urgent matter,” Sheehan writes, contrasting Wheeler’s lack of response with a memo the agency head wrote in 2018 telling employees “it is imperative and expected” that they respond to OIG requests.  

The EPA defended its coordination with the OIG.

“EPA has responded appropriately to the Office of Inspector General request for assistance as it relates to its Seven Day Letter. The Acting Inspector General’s decision to continue with the Seven Day Letter is troubling in light of the assistance the agency provided and undermines the cooperative and iterative relationship that EPA has shared with its OIG,” the agency said in response to The Hill. 

But emails laid out from the OIG paint a different picture.

The investigation centered on a request from the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that feared the EPA received advanced copies of some witness testimony, a move that could be considered interfering with or intimidating individuals who testify before Congress.

Jackson admitted to receiving a copy, but would not say where he got it.

“Will I say where I got it from? No," he said in an Oct 3 interview.

In an email reviewing his issues with investigators a few weeks later, he wrote, “I am not going to involve others or point fingers.”

On a separate personnel matter, OIG said Jackson refused to sit down for another interview with investigators after first meeting in July.

"If you would like to tell me specifically what it is about, I'll be glad to schedule it ... [my scheduler] has asked the subject of the matter and until I receive it ... I'm not meeting with you or your staff," Jackson wrote. 

Jackson was told to expect similar topics discussed in his first interview. Thirteen days later, he agreed to answer questions in writing.

"I have already met with your staff for an hour. If you would like a second interview send me your questions in writing, and I will respond in writing," he said.

Sheehan’s notice of his intent to send the Seven Day Letter appears to have spurred movement at EPA, including an offer by Jackson to sit down for an in-person interview, despite radio silence from the secretary's office after Oct. 21. It also prompted Wheeler to ask for a legal opinion from EPA’s general counsel.

“When I informed the Acting Inspector General of Mr. Jackson’s decision to appear for a second interview, he nonetheless refused to withdraw the attached Seven Day Letter,” Wheeler wrote in a letter to heads of several committees, again saying that action undermines the parties’ relationship.

The legal opinion suggests EPA met their obligations by offering an interview with Jackson after the Seven Day Letter had already been drafted.

“Your attempts to accommodate the OIG, nonetheless, fulfilled your legal obligation,” general counsel Matthew Leopold wrote Tuesday. 

But the OIG letter makes clear how they view risk associated with not sending the admonishing letter.

“To countenance open defiance even in one instance -- much less two, both by a senior official setting precedent for himself and all agency staff -- is ruinous.” 

Updated at 5:36 p.m.