Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee blasted U.S. EPA today for its employees’ misbehavior.
Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) listed "employee integrity" cases uncovered by the EPA inspector general in which agency management was too lenient in its punishment for workers found to be convicted of crimes.
Chaffetz focused on a case involving an EPA enforcement officer in Dallas who was found to have been a registered sex offender yet he remained on the agency payroll for several years. He also used a counterfeit badge and used emergency lights he installed on his car.
The Oversight chairman expressed frustration that the agency had a "child molester" as an official who interacted with the public. Although EPA fired the employee, the decision was overturned by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board and it took a settlement in January 2015 for the worker to leave the agency.
The size of that settlement shocked Chaffetz.
"The American people paid him $55,000 to walk away?" Chaffetz asked EPA Assistant Inspector General for Investigations Patrick Sullivan during at a hearing today.
"Yes," Sullivan said.
Chaffetz, whose committee has probed several incidents of sexual harassment and other misconduct at EPA, said the agency was wrong to keep the sex offender in its employ for so long.
"This is not acceptable," Chaffetz said. "Somebody comes with the authority of the EPA badge and then they’ve got sirens or lights on their car and they’re a registered sex offender. I mean, can you see the disconnect?"
Other cases grabbed lawmakers’ attention during today’s hearing, including one involving an EPA employee that came under acting Deputy EPA Administrator Stan Meiburg’s review when he served as the agency’s deputy regional administrator in its Atlanta-based Region 4 office.
A public affairs specialist was found to have been pawning digital cameras and camcorders that she stole from EPA. She pleaded guilty to theft and was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay restitution of $3,117 and a $1,000 fine. Before that criminal conviction came down, however, she ended up with a 30-day suspension from EPA.
Meiburg told lawmakers he was the deciding official on that suspension for the employee pawning equipment. Nevertheless, he noted his ruling came down months before she was convicted of a crime.
Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) called EPA’s actions "a hypocritical double standard," considering how tough the agency is on environmental-law violators.
"It’s just amazing to me that the agency doesn’t do more to punish people who are stealing from the agency, who even plead guilty to criminal theft and they still have the right and privileges on the shoulders of taxpayers to continue working for the agency," Hice said. "I just can’t wrap my mind around this."
Several Republican lawmakers lamented how often EPA employees caught in misconduct, from watching porn on the job to defrauding the agency, seem to skirt free from harsh penalties.
"That is the M.O.: You steal, you sit around and watch porno, you get convictions outside and you either voluntarily resign or get to retirement but nobody gets fired," Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said.
Democrats defend EPA
Democrats came to EPA’s defense. They noted that the agency has improved its handling of misbehaving employees after being hammered by the Oversight panel during the past year.
"I am encouraged that EPA’s response to allegations of employee misconduct has vastly improved," said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member.
He said many of the cases discussed by the committee today happened at least two years ago. Cummings also said all of those cases are now closed.
Both Meiburg and Sullivan touted the improvements EPA has made to its disciplinary procedures.
The agency has capped administrative or paid leave for misbehaving employees to 10 days with limited exceptions. Further, EPA has streamlined its disciplinary process. In addition, senior EPA officials and staff with the inspector general are meeting twice a week to discuss misconduct cases.
"We feel in the last year we made considerable progress moving forward," Meiburg said. "The interaction involving the inspector general has been tremendously important."
Sullivan agreed, saying, "The biweekly meetings have dramatically improved the process."
Meiburg also found his legal status as deputy administrator under scrutiny at today’s hearing. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) stated that Meiburg was not allowed under federal law to serve in a position on an acting basis that he also has been nominated for.
Gosar, who has pushed for the impeachment of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, said having Meiburg serve as deputy was another instance of EPA’s "blatant disregard for the law."
"I think you should step down, as well," Gosar said. "You cannot serve as the acting official when you are nominated to fill that post permanently. It’s against the law. It’s plain and simple."
Gosar’s statement rests on a recent appeals court decision and the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Meiburg defended his right to serve as EPA’s deputy, and so has the agency in the past (E&ENews PM, May 2).
In a statement today, Monica Lee, an EPA spokeswoman, said the Obama administration was relying on guidance from the Justice Department on the vacancies law on whether individuals may serve in an acting capacity while their nominations are pending before the Senate.
"The administration continues to rely upon that guidance, and we firmly believe that Acting Deputy Administrator Meiburg is acting within the confines of the law," Lee said.