FEDERAL AGENCIES:

Top House watchdog urges Chemical Safety Board chairman to resign

The chief of the Chemical Safety Board came under siege on Capitol Hill today as he was accused of running a highly dysfunctional agency, and the top House watchdog urged him to step down.

Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the CSB, was at the center of a flurry of criticisms leveled against the agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents. Top CSB officials have been accused of retaliating against whistleblowers; stonewalling an inspector general probe; and creating a "toxic work environment," spurring experienced employees to flee the small agency -- causing important investigations to drag out.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) urged Moure-Eraso to step down in light of the allegations.

"I really believe it's time you go," Issa said. He told the chairman of the past five years, "You really need to ask whether or not in your last year, you can actually undo the damage of your first five."

Democrats on the panel were similarly aghast to learn about management problems at the CSB. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told Moure-Eraso he had "serious questions about your fitness to hold your job."

Asked after the hearing whether he'd consider leaving his post, Moure-Eraso said, "My brain is fried. I don't want to have to think or talk about this anymore."

Issa called the CSB an "agency in crisis" that's "unable to properly function and serve its mission because of poor leadership and mismanagement." Committee staff today released an 84-page report depicting an agency plagued by management problems.

"Our investigation found that [the] CSB chairman improperly exercised his responsibility, intimidates staff and undermines the well-established precedent that designates the board, not the chairman himself, as the agency's ultimate authority," Issa said at a hearing today focusing on the agency's management.

Central to the complaints against CSB leadership are allegations of whistleblower reprisal. The U.S. EPA inspector general -- which oversees the CSB -- began investigating allegations in 2012 that a high-level employee in the Office of Special Counsel had disclosed the identities of CSB whistleblowers to a CSB official.

The Justice Department declined criminal prosecution into the case, but Moure-Eraso and other top CSB officials repeatedly refused to produce documents requested by the OIG as part of the leak investigation -- prompting the OIG to send an urgent "seven-day letter" to Congress.

According to the Oversight Committee's report, many employees at the agency fear retaliation for any action perceived as questioning the chairman or assisting other board members. Moure-Eraso denied that any whistleblowers had faced retaliation and rebutted allegations that he had urged employees not to talk to congressional staff.

"I am unaware of any CSB employee who may have lost their job, grade or any pay as a result of complaints made to the Office of Special Counsel," Moure-Eraso said today.

Former CSB board member Beth Rosenberg told lawmakers that there was a "chilled atmosphere" at the agency where staff has been formally discouraged from talking to board members. Rosenberg stepped down after 17 months into her five-year term, citing frustrations with the atmosphere. She said she had often conducted "many meetings in the ladies' room" out of a fear of speaking in public.

At least nine experienced staff members -- of an agency staff of about 40 -- have departed from the CSB due to the "toxic" work environment created by Moure-Eraso and his top lieutenants, the Oversight Committee report says. Committee staffers based their report on interviews with current and former CSB employees.

Issa told Moure-Eraso he plans to issue his own subpoenas by the end of the week if Moure-Eraso doesn't comply with those issued by investigators. The CSB would have a one-week deadline, Issa said, and if the agency doesn't respond, "we would seek to hold you in contempt and refer you for criminal prosecution."

Asked by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) whether he sees himself as the problem at the CSB, Moure-Eraso replied, "I think that we have problems."

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

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