EPA:

Bold initiatives spur calls for new agency watchdog

The Obama administration has yet to nominate someone to serve as top watchdog at U.S. EPA, a delay that is worrying advocacy groups and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The EPA inspector general is an independent officer charged with preventing fraud, waste and abuse through audits and investigations. During George W. Bush's presidency, the inspector general's office was known for casting a critical eye on many of the administration's environmental policies.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are urging President Obama to nominate someone for the post, which requires Senate confirmation. Republicans want someone to oversee the new administration's sweeping new environmental policies, while Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has called for an IG who would probe the agency's work during the Bush years.

Two top Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee blasted the administration for leaving the key EPA position open.

"When it comes to oversight of the agency -- whether on greenhouse gas regulation or other policies with significant economic impacts -- this administration has been uncooperative, in some cases ignoring Congress and its requests for information," said Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the panel's ranking Republican. "Having no appointed IG and obstructing congressional oversight demonstrates that this administration is not serious about governing with transparency and openness."

Greg Keeley, a spokesman for Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), also called on the administration to promptly fill the position. "They need to appoint a full-time inspector general before EPA rules cost millions of Americans their jobs," Keeley said. Barrasso is the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Oversight Subcommittee.

Whitehouse, chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee, has repeatedly urged the Obama administration to appoint a new inspector general as quickly as possible.

"I'm very interested in getting somebody on," he said. "In particular, I think for posterity it's important to catalog what took place at EPA during the Bush years" and to make sure that the effects of the Bush administration are not still being felt.

At a June hearing, Whitehouse pressed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson about the IG post.

"Sometimes, in the appointment process, we hit a few road bumps," Jackson said. "We're not quite back to the drawing board, but we are now interviewing some new candidates for the position. I am optimistic that we'll be able to move along with the White House expeditiously to name a new inspector general. It is a very important -- very important position."

The Obama administration moved quickly to fill many of the top slots at EPA, but inspector general and the 10 regional administrators are not among them.

Broader problem?

Some observers attribute the lag to problems the administration has encountered with other nominees at EPA and across the government.

Obama's nominees to serve as EPA's deputy administrator and top research and development official are being held up in the Senate by Republicans. And in March, Obama's pick for EPA deputy administrator abruptly pulled out of the confirmation process because of an investigation into the nonprofit group where he once served on the board of directors (E&ENews PM, March 25).

Beyond EPA, experts say that problems surrounding nominations early on may have slowed down the process. Early this year, former Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle and former Commerce Secretary nominee Bill Richardson were among the high-profile nominees who came under fire and ultimately withdrew from the confirmation process.

After those and other problems with nominees, "the vetting process probably slowed down; they were more careful," said Rick Melberth, director of regulatory policy at the advocacy group OMB Watch.

"I don't think there's anything sinister going on here," said Jeff Holmstead, who served as EPA air chief during the Bush administration. "I just think it's not as high on the list of priorities."

Meanwhile, Bill Roderick, a former Defense Department auditor, has been running the IG's office since Nikki Tinsley's resignation in March 2006. Tinsley, who served as inspector general since 1998, offered a critical perspective on many of the Bush administration's policies.

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said the office continues to move forward under Roderick, whose title is acting IG.

"For the IG, even though they don't have somebody in place, I know they still are moving full speed ahead on various projects," Becker said. In its annual plan released this month, the office outlined a host of planned and continuing audits.

In August, Jackson ordered her staff to cooperate with the IG's office. In a memorandum, she said it was imperative that agency staff provide auditors "full and unrestricted access" to personnel, facilities, records and other information at their request (Greenwire, Aug. 10).

Still, some are wary that EPA is taking on a host of new challenges -- like stimulus spending and climate programs -- with insufficient oversight.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, expressed concern that "the office has been adrift" since Tinsley's resignation.

"A concern we have is this sort of oversight function does not appear to be a priority across the administration," said Ruch, a vocal critic about Jackson's handling of Superfund during her tenure as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

"A good inspector general," he said, "can be embarrassing for an administration."

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