Despite alarms raised by EPA’s watchdog office and legal staff, Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson switched a top political appointee’s workplace from San Francisco to Los Angeles, moving him closer to home.
EPA Region 9 Administrator Mike Stoker’s "duty station" is now Los Angeles. Hundreds of the staff he oversees as regional administrator for EPA’s Pacific Southwest branch, however, are based in Region 9’s main office in San Francisco.
The change was the culmination of a campaign that began more than a year ago, according to emails, memos and personnel records obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act.
His wish to change his work site to LA was long known by others. "The desire for Mike Stoker to change his duty station to LA had been simmering on the stove. Since he took office, he had been wanting for that to happen," said a former EPA official.
Other political appointees, including EPA Assistant Deputy Administrator Henry Darwin, have also moved offices closer to home (Greenwire, Aug. 26). Darwin’s move reignited frustrations over a controversial new contract imposed on employees represented by the agency’s largest union that limits their telework and caused many to scramble work schedules.
In addition, Stoker’s move could attract renewed scrutiny as well as expose him to liability for travel expenses.
In an April 10, 2019, "memorandum for file," Jackson said he was establishing "a pilot program" for Stoker to work from LA, since the regional chief’s duties have been done from "a myriad of locations" and EPA’s LA office is staffed by two dozen personnel. The project is to last "a period of a year" beginning April 14.
Jackson added, "I will evaluate the pilot and determine whether to continue it for another year."
"I believe that this pilot program is the best choice among and most consistent with Agency management policies of the five options originally considered in May 2018," he said.
Those five options were laid out in a May 4, 2018, memo by Elise Packard, then EPA’s associate general counsel for civil rights and finance.
Jackson gave three reasons for the switch to LA: "closer proximity" to elected local and state officials; "better engagement" with tribes; and "proximity to outer areas of regions," citing the U.S.-Mexico border, Hawaii and U.S. territories.
Four days after Jackson’s memo, Stoker’s personnel file was updated. "CHG IN DUTY STATION," the record said, listing LA as his new workplace.
Region 9 oversees EPA operations in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and the Pacific Islands as well as 148 tribes. The bulk of its regional staff works in the San Francisco office, but EPA’s Pacific Southwest branch also has offices in LA, San Diego and Honolulu.
Stan Meiburg, who served as EPA’s acting deputy administrator during the Obama administration’s later years, told E&E News it’s common for regional administrators to have difficulty relocating, especially to high-cost cities.
Stoker’s move to LA, however, surprised Meiburg, who also served as deputy regional administrator in EPA’s Regions 4 and 6 during his 39 years at EPA.
"This particular arrangement is highly unusual. From my experience, the duty station for the regional administrator is the main regional office," Meiburg said.
Packard’s memo also contained a warning that Stoker could later be held liable for travel costs.
"If you determine that the majority of the position’s duties will be carried out in Los Angeles, you can transfer the duty station," said Packard, who is now one of EPA’s top career lawyers as deputy general counsel for operations.
"However, depending on where the duties take place, we believe that there is legal risk that an oversight body might find that your determination was incorrect and require the RA to repay travel costs to and from San Francisco."
She noted, "’The official station of an employee is a matter of fact and not merely one of administrative designation,’" quoting a GAO decision from 1952.
"Similarly, where employees were hired to work in one location, but assigned another location as their duty station (enabling them to return to their homes there on the weekends), GAO found that the designation was improper. The duty station should be where the actual duties took place," Packard added.
Under federal travel regulations, official travel by employees like Stoker away from their duty station are paid for by their agencies. Consequently, Meiburg said Stoker’s travel from LA to San Francisco, where the majority of Stoker’s staff works, could now be covered by EPA.
"Presumably, while he was in San Francisco, he would stay in a hotel and be eligible for lodging and per diem costs," added Meiburg, now a sustainable studies professor at Wake Forest University.
In a statement in response to E&E News’ questions for this story, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said, "EPA carefully evaluated Regional Administrator Stoker’s schedule, travel, and work for the past year and where a suitable duty station for him should be. Mr. Stoker spends part of his time in EPA offices in California and the rest traveling between the 8 time zones and 148 tribes that encompass Region 9, serving its 50 million residents with 22 million in Southern California alone."
The EPA spokesman’s statement didn’t address whether EPA was paying for Stoker’s travel to and from San Francisco as well as lodging in the city.
‘The work of a regional administrator has to be very portable’
The agency’s consideration of having Stoker work in LA had already came under scrutiny, though Stoker and other EPA officials said he would work from San Francisco (Climatewire, May 21, 2018).
Stoker dismissed the concerns in an interview with E&E News at the time, saying, "The best they can do is go after me and say, ‘Where is he going to work?’"
Stoker’s Facebook profile says he lives in Carpinteria, a small beach town in Santa Barbara County. Before coming to EPA, he was a California attorney and longtime Republican official, including as Santa Barbara County board supervisor, who is credited with coming up with President Trump’s "Lock her up" chant.
As Stoker carried on as regional administrator, his frequent travel and time spent in LA — nearly a two-hour drive from where he resides, closer than the roughly five-hour drive to San Francisco — was noticed by EPA staff. A hotline complaint was filed with the EPA inspector general.
EPA’s watchdog office then issued a "management alert" about Stoker’s travels. The IG’s review found he spent about 20% of his time, or 30 out of 145 workdays, in San Francisco, where more than 600 employees, or 90% of the staff he manages, are based. The EPA Region 9 head also spent 24 workdays teleworking and another 19 workdays in LA.
About half of Stoker’s time, or 72 workdays, was spent traveling. Stoker took 15 trips out of 35 to destinations in Southern California during that time period, the IG found.
The inspector general also learned Stoker had been traveling at his own expense to his home.
The agency’s internal watchdog doesn’t plan to dig further into the matter, EPA OIG spokeswoman Tia Elbaum told E&E News. "At this time, we do not have plans to do any additional work in this area," she said.
Elbaum declined to comment on whether the IG office believed Stoker’s office should be in San Francisco or Los Angeles.
At the time of the IG alert, Jackson defended Stoker.
"Mike’s duty station is San Francisco and has been San Francisco. That being said, the work of a regional administrator has to be very portable. That’s exactly what Mike is doing," the EPA chief of staff said in an interview with E&E News. "We think it is very appropriate for him to work out of any of the offices in Region 9" (E&E News PM, March 21).
Nevertheless, about three weeks later, Jackson changed Stoker’s duty station to LA.
Stoker’s schedule hasn’t changed much since then. An E&E News review of his public calendar from April through early November this year shows he has spent at least 28 days in San Francisco, or more than 19% of his work time. Stoker also logged 18 days in the LA area, close to 13% of his workdays, during the same period.
Stoker was in San Francisco on Monday last week when he announced that Steven Leonido-John, who is based in LA as director of EPA’s Southern California Field Office, is EPA Region 9’s new chief of staff, according to EPA employees.
EPA staff also told E&E News that senior career officials often handle day-to-day operations in Region 9. In contrast, Stoker doesn’t interact much with employees based in San Francisco.
Mark Sims, president of the EPA unit of Engineers and Scientists of California, IFPTE Local 20, said Stoker "is out in the field doing quite a bit."
"That’s what he likes to do, go out and meet with constituents," said Sims, whose union represents EPA Region 9 employees. "For the day-to-day here, he pretty much leaves it to the career staff. That’s my impression anyway."
Another EPA Region 9 employee said, "The overall feeling is it is just weird to not have a regional administrator work out of the regional office."
Abboud with EPA emphasized that Stoker was busy at work.
"This past week, Mr. Stoker attended events at Verco Manufacturing, CarbonLite corporation, and with the Chumash tribe promoting Recycling Day and EPA’s recycling agenda. For the previous administration, Recycling Day was just a press release," said the EPA spokesman.
‘Makes my calendar pretty crazy’
Stoker pushed to move his workplace just a few months after joining EPA, according to a July 18 draft memo to Jackson.
"Looking at the pattern of my various meetings and associated travel, I’d like to revisit the discussion we began before my appointment with regard to my official duty station," said the memo. "I ask for your support of a one-year trial period in which my duty station is temporarily changed to our So. California Field Office in Los Angeles."
In the memo, Stoker anticipated that "approximately 20%" of his time would be in San Francisco. LA could be a cheaper option, he said.
"My support team has closely tracked my travel expenses by trip and by month, noting in most cases the lower cost of travel via Los Angeles compared with San Francisco," said Stoker, adding that he convened monthly meetings with ethics counsel to ensure his actions were in compliance.
Stoker also asked senior career staff in EPA Region 9 for their support in the shift.
"Is it possible to do a memo from you and Sylvia to me based on at my request your review and opinion regarding me changing my duty station from SF to LA?" Stoker said, referring to Sylvia Quast, the regional counsel for the Pacific Southwest branch.
"Will have more clout coming from you two," he added.
"We can do that," said Alexis Strauss, once EPA’s deputy regional administrator and acting regional administrator in Region 9 who was helping Stoker transition into the top job. She retired from the agency earlier this year.
Stoker replied with a thumbs-up emoji.
Struggles over the Region 9 administrator’s travel and confusion over where he worked in the early months of his tenure are apparent in emails obtained by E&E News. He was even told in one email that his financial disclosure system account listed his workplace as LA, not San Francisco.
Stoker had help with some travel costs. The California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) planned to pay for his hotel and trip on at least one occasion, according to a chain of emails.
"You had proposed to me that they pay your hotel for Friday and your travel back to Santa Barbara," Amy Miller, then Stoker’s chief of staff, said in a May 2018 email.
She also noted that Stoker wanted to fly out of LA to attend an EPA regional administrators’ meeting in Chicago. "This would be contingent on it being comparable to SF ticket," Miller said.
Stoker’s public calendar shows he was in San Diego to attend CIPA’s annual meeting and give a speech on June 9 last year. He also was in Chicago for the regional administrators’ meeting the following Monday.
CIPA paid $665.14 for Stoker’s airfare and one night of lodging for its 2018 annual meeting, CIPA spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart told E&E News.
Ethics staff who were consulted over Stoker’s travel determined the CIPA payment could be accepted, according to one of the emails.
In another instance, Stoker was advised against scheduling a meeting in LA.
In an August 2018 email, Strauss said, "For next week’s trip to Honolulu and American Samoa, we recommend against adding a Monday morning external meeting in Los Angeles, which would require a change in your travel documents and an accompanying justification, for [deputy regional administrator] approval."
Stoker replied with another thumbs-up emoji. And his official calendar indicates that he followed that advice.
Stoker also tried last year to rearrange travel by his then-superior, former Administrator Scott Pruitt. The Region 9 head asked one of Pruitt’s aides if the EPA chief could rework his visit to the San Francisco office and a Superfund toxic waste site in Santa Barbara County.
"Can we do Regional visit in SF on the 28th [of June] and Casmalia on 29th? Makes my calendar pretty crazy as I will be in DC earlier in the week and end back in Santa Barbara end of the week," Stoker said in an email.
In a separate email to his own staff, Stoker asked, "If I do this does EPA pick up tab for me flying up to SF and back to SB Friday afterward?"
He heard back in an email, "We will not be able to pay for your return trip from SF back to Santa Barbara after the Pruitt visit."
Stoker seemingly wasn’t able to change Pruitt’s itinerary. Stoker’s public calendar indicates Pruitt was at the Casmalia Resources Superfund Site on June 28 last year, followed by a meeting between Pruitt and Stoker in the San Francisco office the next day.
Concerns over an ‘absentee’ regional administrator
Stoker may face questions over his travel long after he leaves EPA.
In September 2015, the EPA inspector general issued a report that tore into the travel practices of another Region 9 head: Wayne Nastri, who led EPA’s Pacific Southwest branch during the George W. Bush administration.
Nastri’s duty station was San Francisco, and he stayed nearby at his sister’s home. EPA, however, established its Southern California Field Office in LA during his tenure.
EPA’s watchdog office found that from October 2006 until Nastri left EPA in January 2009, he made an "excessive" 51 trips to the Orange County/LA area, where his Aliso Viejo home was located.
Those trips cost nearly $69,000 and Nastri claimed "ineligible" travel costs of close to $4,000, including parking fees at the airport. The inspector general questioned "whether the travel of [Nastri] was essential to performance of the agency mission."
Nastri is now executive officer for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Nahal Mogharabi, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Nastri doesn’t agree with the IG report’s conclusions and didn’t have a chance to review it before it was issued. His travel to Southern California was "a reflection of his priorities" to address the LA area’s environmental problems, she said.
"Although Mr. Nastri did not admit any liability, he did reimburse the government in order to be released from any and all travel claims related to his service as regional administrator for EPA Region 9," Mogharabi said.
Elbaum with EPA’s IG office said the agency received payment from Nastri for $3,876.50 in fiscal 2016.
Some have not wanted a repeat of an EPA Region 9 administrator frequently traveling to and from LA.
Just days before Stoker started at EPA, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent a letter to the agency, saying she was "particularly troubled" by reports that Stoker planned to work from LA, calling it a "similar working arrangement" to Nastri’s time at EPA.
Noting that the majority of the Region 9 staff work in San Francisco, "We do not believe that the EPA’s mission would be well served by having an absentee RA," said California’s senior senator.
Abboud with EPA defended Stoker. "We have said from the beginning of this Administration we expect our regional administrators to be accessible to all communities in their regions," he said. "There are numerous examples of our regional administrators working throughout their areas supporting the programs of this Administration, and that will continue to be the case."
And, a former EPA official said of Stoker, "He sees his role being out there as an ambassador for the region. Therefore, he mostly travels."
Others noted Stoker was not often seen in the San Francisco office anyway.
"It seemed like a seamless transition because he wasn’t really around to begin with," said an EPA union official based in Region 9.