EPA:

Beale backlash spurs intense worker scrutiny

There's been a crackdown on U.S. EPA employees' behavior, thanks to CIA masquerader John Beale.

Agency workers have seen beefed-up scrutiny of their attendance, travel and retention bonuses as EPA attempts to tighten up its personnel procedures -- and repair its image -- in the wake of the high-profile scandal, according to union officials. Beale, a longtime senior EPA air official, is now in prison after pleading guilty to stealing government cash he didn't earn while lying about doing secret work for the CIA.

"There's a big crackdown right now," said Silvia Saracco, head of a union chapter that represents EPA employees in Research Triangle Park, N.C. "I guess part of the solution in senior management's view was to make it tougher on everybody to do time and attendance and travel and everything," said Saracco, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3347.

The fallout over the Beale scandal is reverberating in EPA offices across the country, union officials say. Beale's fraud, which went on for more than a decade, has caused embarrassment to an agency that was already a lightning rod for political attacks. EPA's critics have called for further investigations into how the fraud went on for so long, as agency officials vowed to ensure it won't happen again.

EPA has "put in place additional safeguards to help protect against fraud and abuse related to employee time and attendance, including strengthening supervisory controls of time and attendance, improved review of employee travel and a tightened retention incentive processes," agency spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said in a statement. "Those safeguards apply equally to our managers and our employees, as accurately recording time and attendance is every employee's responsibility." EPA also issued a report last December detailing its plans.

Union officials say they support ensuring that employees are following the rules, but they argue that rank-and-file workers are being unfairly targeted for problems that occurred in EPA's upper echelons. The crackdown, they say, has dealt another blow to already sagging worker morale.

"I'm all for people getting their time and attendance correctly, and if someone's cheating the system, they should be out," said Paul Sacker, president of the AFGE unit that represents employees in Region 2. "The shock is that they've been ignoring this stuff for years. Now they woke up? So our biggest concern is the unfair blowback. A manager gets a wagging of the finger; an employee gets a termination notice."

Union officials declined to cite specific examples of employees who have been targeted due to confidentiality concerns. But they said there's been heightened scrutiny when it comes to things like tele-working, attendance forms and travel.

The intensity varies depending on the office, said Karen Kellen, president of the AFGE chapter that represents EPA nationally. But she said there are frequent comments from EPA managers saying, "'We can't do this anymore because of the Beale situation.' Or, 'We're cracking down on this and we're going to make sure everyone complies with the absolute letter of this because of the Beale situation.'"

On top of finding that he took time off while lying about doing work for the CIA, the Beale investigation flagged a number of problems with his travel expenses and pay that broke EPA's rules. The agency's inspector general has issued initial reports on the internal management and pay issues identified as part of the investigation, as well as problems with his travel. Those investigations are ongoing.

The IG's office first flagged problems with his pay in June 2010 during an annual financial audit. The IG's office made inquiries to the agency's human resources office, which found that his bonus pay was putting his salary above legal limits. From 2000 until 2013, he made an average of about $180,000 per year -- an amount that exceeded the statutory pay limits at his grade for four of those years.

Beale also received bonus pay from 2000 until 2013, even though it should have ended by 2003, according to the IG's office (E&ENews PM, Dec. 11, 2013).

He wasn't the only one getting outdated retention bonuses, Kellen said. EPA has identified other cases since his fraud was revealed and has asked other workers to pay back the extra cash.

"The disturbing part is that they're going back on some of these people and saying, 'And you owe us for the last couple years,' even though they approved them," Kellen said. "I don't think employees should be held responsible for paying back money that they thought was done legitimately."

As the Beale case has made national headlines and became the brunt of jokes on late-night comedy shows, Saracco said agency employees watched with dismay.

"Like everybody else, we can't believe something like this would happen and had gone on for years and years," she said. "Employees really are concerned about the situation. We're being made fun of on late-night talk shows and comedy shows."

Now, she said, "it's almost like everyone feels that they have to justify that they're not stealing by the additional scrutiny being placed on time and attendance rules and travel -- and again, this is from people who have been following the rules the whole time."

Twitter: @rbravender | Email: rbravender@eenews.net

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