Chemical board members at odds over management woes

By Robin Bravender | 03/04/2015 07:36 AM EST

Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso doesn’t appear to think the management problems facing his besieged agency are as grave as some of his colleagues do.

Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso doesn’t appear to think the management problems facing his besieged agency are as grave as some of his colleagues do.

According to Moure-Eraso, he’s been making strides in resolving problems in his agency after his management came under fire and House lawmakers urged him to resign last year. Other board members, meanwhile, see things quite differently, insisting that management problems continue to plague the agency and serious reforms are needed.

The agency’s four board members today will share their varying opinions — and grievances — with lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as the panel convenes a hearing titled "Rebuilding the Chemical Safety Board: Finding a Solution to the CSB’s Governance and Management Challenges."


Last summer, the committee released a scathing report that pointed to widespread management problems. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle berated Moure-Eraso for allegedly stonewalling outside investigations and creating a "toxic" work environment that prompted experienced employees to leave and further stall important probes. Then-Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) urged Moure-Eraso to resign (Greenwire, June 19, 2014).

According to the chairman’s prepared testimony, things have gotten a lot better since then.

"I was humbled by the messages I heard loud and clear during your hearing eight months ago in June," Moure-Eraso wrote. "I took your criticisms to heart."

He added that he has tried to "work closely" with fellow board members and staff to resolve the issues that were raised during that hearing and produced a plan to address the agency’s morale problems.

Moure-Eraso, who said he plans to retire in June when his term ends, said he believes he’ll be leaving behind a "newly energized agency." He added, "I acknowledge my shortcomings while assuring you that my commitment to the mission of the CSB — preventing chemical accidents through top-quality investigations and recommendations — has never wavered for a moment."

One of CSB’s newly appointed board members, Manuel Ehrlich, will tell lawmakers that he’s been impressed by the work of the board since his confirmation last December. "Organizationally, I am aware of the issues this committee has raised concerning management and governance at the agency," he wrote in his prepared testimony.

"But I would like to take this opportunity to say that I have a high degree of respect for Chairman Moure-Eraso and the work output of the CSB during his tenure. He has been under heavy fire, but I know him as a man whose entire being is dedicated to preventing these chemical accidents and saving workers’ lives."

In his judgment, Ehrlich wrote, "it appears that some board members worked with a few career staff to try to curtail the appropriate administrative authority" of the board’s chairman, "so the chain of command within the agency is ambiguous."

Agency continues to ‘deflect and defend’

Two of the board’s members will provide a more scathing review of the agency’s leadership.

Mark Griffon, who has served on the board since 2010, will focus his testimony on recent actions that he wrote have stripped the agency’s governance system "of necessary checks and balances" and a "failure to honor commitments made to this committee" after the hearing last June.

Among his complaints, Griffon will tell the panel that he was troubled by Ehrlich’s surprise introduction of a motion at a January meeting that included "fundamentally modifying the governance of the agency," establishing a new board order for scoping investigations and canceling three investigations.

Despite Griffon’s opposition, the motion passed in a 2-1 vote, with Moure-Eraso and Ehrlich voting in favor. A fourth board member, Richard Engler, had been confirmed by the Senate but hadn’t yet joined the agency. "The urgency of taking up this sweeping motion just prior to Mr. Engler joining the agency has not been explained," according to Griffon’s testimony.

And after former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) put forward recommendations to Moure-Eraso to begin to tackle management problems, "These recommendations, which I considered a reasonable starting point toward improving agency management, have not been fulfilled," Griffon wrote. He added, "It is clear that the agency continues to deflect and defend rather than reflect and reform."

Both Griffon and Engler will advocate that the board rescind the motion from Ehrlich, which they say improperly consolidates the board chairman’s power.

"Changes are needed to resolve the controversy over CSB governance and the powers of the chair in relation to other members," Engler wrote in his testimony. "The serious engagement of all CSB members in major decisions provides critical checks and balances and would result in the best decisions."

The motion from Ehrlich, Engler wrote, eliminated the role of other board members in deciding budgets, deciding key contracts and approving appointments of department heads.

But Ehrlich will defend his January motion, which he said was aimed at clarifying "any ambiguities about the chair’s administrative authority. My motion was about the future of the agency, and the authority and leadership capacity of future chairs."

Ehrlich’s motion was perceived by some as an indication that he’d like to become the board’s next chairman after Moure-Eraso’s retirement.

"It appears Ehrlich was trying to position himself to be chairman," said a source who closely tracks CSB.

Obama announces new nominee

In advance of today’s hearing, President Obama yesterday picked a Transportation Department official to join the board.

The White House announced that the president will nominate Vanessa Allen Sutherland, chief counsel for DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, to serve on the five-member board.

Prior to joining DOT in 2011, Allen Sutherland was senior counsel to Altria Client Services from 2008 until 2011 and was counsel to Philip Morris USA from 2004 until 2008. She also previously worked at technology company Digex Inc. and MCI Telecommunications Corp.

She’s one of two nominees recently picked for the board. In January, the White House nominated Kristen Kulinowski, a research staff member at the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute, to join the board (E&E Daily, Jan. 9).

The board already has four Senate-confirmed members filling the five slots, but Moure-Eraso and Griffon are both facing term limits this year. Moure-Eraso has announced plans to retire; it’s unclear whether the White House would renominate Griffon, or whether he would seek renomination.

The chemical board has also announced that it’s hiring a new managing director.

Daniel Horowitz, who had been managing director of the board, is now listed on the staff directory as senior adviser to the Deepwater Horizon investigation.

Horowitz was one of several top officials at the board who were found to have improperly used personal email accounts to discuss official business, according to an inspector general report sent to the White House in January (E&ENews PM, Feb. 24).

Reporter Sam Pearson contributed.