EPA watchdog accused of creating a hostile work environment

By Hannah Northey, Kevin Bogardus | 11/06/2023 01:39 PM EST

Inspector General Sean O’Donnell denied wide-ranging allegations about his behavior. Some House Democrats want to know why an investigation was dropped.

EPA Inspector General Sean O'Donnell

Multiple whistleblowers alleged that EPA Inspector General Sean O’Donnell created a hostile work environment. Francis Chung/POLITICO

The top watchdog tasked with overseeing EPA faced accusations that he abused his authority, wasted government money and showed partisan favor.

EPA Inspector General Sean O’Donnell denied the allegations, which an oversight body ultimately deemed not worthy of further investigation, according to documents obtained by E&E News.

The probe by the agency watchdogs’ oversight body was launched after Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s top Democrat, flagged a host of concerns in August that whistleblowers raised with his office.


Raskin in an Aug. 7 letter to Kevin Winters, who chairs the Integrity Committee for the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, or CIGIE, expressed “serious concerns” about allegations that O’Donnell had “executed his duties in a manner that suggest he lacks the independence and integrity required of an inspector general.”

“Contrary to CIGIE standards and the professionalism expected of federal IGs, multiple whistleblowers allege that Mr. O’Donnell created a hostile work environment and engaged in conduct that undermines the integrity reasonably expected of an IG,” the lawmaker wrote.

CIGIE is an independent entity responsible for overseeing the federal government’s inspectors general, who investigate and root out waste, fraud and abuse within their agencies. The council’s Integrity Committee, which includes fellow IGs, receives and reviews allegations of wrongdoing made against an inspector general or their staff.

But Thomas Monheim, vice chair of the Integrity Committee, told Raskin and other top lawmakers in a Nov. 1 letter that a review of O’Donnell’s defense and supporting material showed no further investigation was needed.

“IG O’Donnell’s response sufficiently addressed these allegations and further investigation is not warranted,” wrote Monheim. “Therefore, the [Integrity Committee] will take no additional action on this matter at this time.”

Winters was recused from the matter and didn’t participate in the committee’s deliberations, according to Monheim’s letter that was addressed to Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Monheim in the letter said O’Donnell on Sept. 28 submitted a five-page response denying the allegations laid out in Raskin’s letter against him and expressed concern that he had for the past year been asked to “respond to numerous accusations that were spurious and baseless.”

O’Donnell, as EPA’s inspector general, has been vocal over his worries regarding the influx of cash the agency is receiving from President Joe Biden’s signature climate and infrastructure laws, which is over $100 billion combined in the coming years. He has testified before Congress to warn such enormous funds could be ripe for fraud and waste.

House Democrats are pushing for more answers about why the review into O’Donnell didn’t continue.

A spokesperson for Democrats on the House Oversight Committee said lawmakers have asked the Integrity Committee to provide additional information about the investigative steps it took when deciding not to open an investigation, aside from asking for the EPA inspector general to provide written responses on the allegations.

“In order to ensure our public servants and the public have confidence in our inspector generals, Oversight Democrats will continue to support the important work of CIGIE to ensure the inspector general community is meeting its stringent professional standards,” said the spokesperson. “Getting this additional information will assist the Committee in that effort.”

An EPA Office of Inspector General spokesperson said the watchdog office had no comment for E&E News’ questions at this time.

A representative for the CIGIE Integrity Committee also declined to comment for this story.

Alleged inappropriate comments

O’Donnell denied a host of accusations Raskin laid out from unnamed whistleblowers, including that he made inappropriate comments in the workplace.

O’Donnell, who wears a collegiate ring from his alma mater Texas A&M University, said in a senior staff meeting that his ring “got him into the bedroom” with women. “At least two female staff and one male official were disturbed and expressed discomfort with this statement,” Raskin said.

O’Donnell said he had never used the phrase or heard anyone else use that phrase before the committee shared it with him, according to Monheim’s letter.

O’Donnell, according to Raskin’s letter, was also accused of making statements with respect to race and gender, including allegedly telling staff “that white males are the minority in the OIG and that one hiring official within the OIG did not want to hire white men.”

In response, O’Donnell told the Integrity Committee there was one woman in a senior leadership position in the IG office when he joined and now the office has at least five. In addition, there has been no circumstance where a hiring official considered race or gender when bringing on staff, and if that occurred, he “would have addressed the matter swiftly.”

Raskin also said O’Donnell allegedly made offensive comments when he introduced a staff member from West Virginia, stating “at least they can read and write.’”

O’Donnell likewise rejected those accusations, saying he enjoys visiting the state and “I have not made offensive or inappropriate comments about staff members from West Virginia.”

Disney World and ‘grumble berries’

Raskin’s letter also outlined complaints about O’Donnell planning an all-hands meeting at a resort in Orlando, Fla., in December 2022.

The meeting, Raskin wrote, required up to 300 EPA IG office employees to fly to the event at a cost of about $1,500 per person, with additional funds spent to shuttle staff between the airport, hotel and conference facilities. EPA’s IG office has 11 field offices across the nation, all of which are located more than 400 miles from Orlando.

O’Donnell allegedly instructed senior staff that if there were any “grumble berries” who did not want to attend the event, they were to be told the event was “mandatory,” according to Raskin’s letter. EPA staff were also encouraged to bring their families to the event given its proximity to the Walt Disney World Resort.

“During the five-day event, the EPA OIG also hosted a ‘Holiday Get Together’ for employees and their families,” Raskin wrote. “After the holiday event, Senior Executive Service staff within the EPA OIG instructed other staff not to share any videos taken at the event.”

O’Donnell did not address the Orlando trip in Monheim’s letter. But a footnote states the Integrity Committee previously addressed the allegations and sent its findings to Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Oversight and Senate Homeland Security panels on Sept. 8.

The Office of Inspector General under O’Donnell’s watch has faced questions over spending before.

The House and Senate Appropriations committees “remind[ed]” the inspector general’s office of “its stated core values of customer, integrity, and accountability, including a commitment to transparent processes and compliance with laws, regulations, policies and sound business practices,” according to an explanatory statement accompanying last year’s omnibus package.

The appropriators were “concerned” the EPA watchdog went through “a significant reorganization” without notifying Congress and “reminded” the inspector general of their reprogramming rules for agencies.

In turn, lawmakers directed the inspector general’s office to provide a quarterly report on its spending related to the infrastructure law, “including any travel or conference expenditures.”

Close with Trump?

Nominated by then-President Donald Trump, O’Donnell was confirmed by the Senate in December 2019.

As Trump went on a firing spree against inspector generals, O’Donnell was named acting inspector general for the Defense Department in April 202, a job he served simultaneously with his EPA post, until President Joe Biden’s Pentagon watchdog nominee, Robert Storch, was approved last year.

O’Donnell’s ties with Trump’s inner circle also came under scrutiny in Raskin’s letter.

Whistleblowers said O’Donnell had expressed viewpoints that indicated “a partisan predisposition,” including that he had been over to the White House and was “close” to John McEntee, who led the White House presidential personnel office during the Trump administration.

“According to one whistleblower, they perceived the statements to be an attempt by Mr. O’Donnell to inflate his authority and power,” Raskin said in his letter.

O’Donnell denied knowing McEntee or stating he was close with the Trump White House. He told the Integrity Committee that his work as the EPA inspector general “and as the acting IG at the DoD, including public statements, absolutely belie this accusation.”

Raskin’s letter also included an allegation that O’Donnell “significantly delayed” issuing a report by his office and sought to minimize its findings because then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler “didn’t like” the report.

O’Donnell also denied this allegation, telling the Integrity Committee his office will “not negotiate or otherwise weaken” its reports’ recommendations. He believed the only report that Wheeler objected to was a March 31, 2020, management alert on ethylene-oxide emitting facilities.

Wheeler issued a press release blasting that report, which O’Donnell thought had been delayed prior to his arrival in the inspector general’s office.

O’Donnell provided the Integrity Committee an E&E News article covering Wheeler’s unusual pushback on the alert, according to Monheim’s letter.