Gina McCarthy flustered as security spat grinds on

By Robin Bravender | 07/23/2015 12:58 PM EDT

Gina McCarthy is upset that U.S. EPA’s top watchdog continues to gripe about her agency’s homeland security shop.

The EPA administrator and other agency leaders have been feuding with the inspector general for years over the homeland security division, and watchdogs have been complaining that staffers have inappropriately blocked their access to information. The ongoing turf war has been the topic of congressional hearings, spurred continued negotiations between EPA and IG officials, and has come under scrutiny in the media.

McCarthy is "concerned" by the IG’s continued focus on the small security shop and frustrated by suggestions that the IG may escalate the issue with lawmakers, she wrote to Inspector General Arthur Elkins earlier this month in a memo obtained by Greenwire.


Despite "significant progress in furthering cooperation and collaboration," Elkins had suggested a seven-day letter may be forthcoming, McCarthy wrote.

IGs can use seven-day letters to report "particularly serious or flagrant problems" to agency leaders, who must pass those reports on to Congress within seven days. It’s a little-used tool that’s seen as a last resort for watchdogs sparring with agency leaders.

"I find this especially frustrating given the progress we have made and my repeated requests for any articulation of problems in the EPA’s programs or operations that may rise to such a level," she said.

Elkins and others in his office have repeatedly expressed concerns that the security division — EPA’s liaison for homeland security matters — inappropriately blocked his office from conducting some investigations that involve employee misconduct. Elkins has told lawmakers that EPA has wrongly kept some information deemed "intelligence" from the IG’s office, despite the agency’s legal obligation to share that information with watchdogs (Greenwire, Nov. 7, 2014).

McCarthy said in the July 7 memo that EPA officials have worked hard to ensure that, with respect to IG investigations, there are "no such impediments" to watchdogs carrying out their duties. She noted that she will "not tolerate any interference" with the work the IG is legally authorized to do.

However, McCarthy said, in a recent meeting between EPA general counsel Avi Garbow and Elkins’ chief counsel Alan Larsen, no specific instances of agency interference were identified.

"While I can and will take action on the basis of actual problems," she wrote, "I remained concerned about your continued focus on a program that, as I understand it, is being fully responsive with any requests for information made by OIG … ."

The EPA chief noted that she had directed the homeland security office to make all information in its possession available to the OIG and had rescinded a previous memo that Elkins found objectionable.

That was welcome news to the inspector general’s office.

The memo from McCarthy outlined her intent "to enable the Office of Inspector General to fully carry out its mission," OIG spokeswoman Jennifer Kaplan said in a statement.

"In particular, Administrator McCarthy indicated that she has directed OHS to make available to the OIG all information within its possession. She also noted that she has rescinded the Memorandum of Understanding previously signed by the [Office of Homeland Security] and the FBI to the exclusion of the OIG," Kaplan added.

"We are now ‘test driving’ to gauge compliance."

The homeland security office, Elkins’ shop and the FBI have agreed to allow OIG investigators full access to information provided to the agency by the FBI, dependent upon appropriate security clearances, McCarthy noted.

The number of relevant FBI security-related cases that involve EPA’s Office of Homeland Security "is minuscule," she added, "perhaps as few as two or three cases."

Asked to comment about the memo, EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said McCarthy "remains committed to ensuring the Office of Inspector General can perform his oversight functions under the Inspector General Act."