Updated at 2:09 p.m. EST.
A senior U.S. EPA official was accused last year of behaving inappropriately toward more than a dozen women — including a 21-year-old intern — violating security procedures and mishandling classified information.
But when investigators in EPA’s inspector general’s office tried to interview the official last month, that person retired the same day — preventing the watchdogs from investigating further.
It’s one of the many roadblocks EPA’s inspector general has faced in recent years as individuals in EPA and the Chemical Safety Board have refused to cooperate with investigators and blocked watchdogs’ access to information, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Elkins told a panel of House lawmakers today.
In addition to the now-retired EPA official’s "unwillingness to cooperate," Elkins said, in the past two years, "my office has been presented with other situations in which individuals refused to cooperate in administrative interviews."
In a separate case, he said, an attorney in the Office of General Counsel refused to cooperate with the OIG even after being prompted — "although not directed" — to cooperate by agency management. EPA didn’t take action against that attorney, who then left the agency to work elsewhere in government, Elkins said.
And in another instance, a highly paid EPA program adviser in the Office of Research and Development refused to cooperate with the IG’s office as part of an investigation into violations of security policies, Elkins said. That case is still pending, he added, "but the agency, to my knowledge, has not taken any action against the EPA employee for not cooperating with my office."
Republican lawmakers expressed outrage today over Elkins’ accusations of agency stonewalling.
"Nothing is supposed to be off limits" for IG’s offices, said House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). Referring to the now-retired senior official, he said, "this allegation is fairly serious." Chaffetz said employees should be held accountable for their actions, adding, "you just don’t get a ‘get out of jail free’ card" by filing retirement papers.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia today said EPA had referred the matter of the now-retired official to the IG’s office, and "we fully support the OIG’s investigation." She added, "The agency made the employee available to the IG this summer for questioning, and after being under investigation for six months he decided to leave the government. The agency has no legal authority to force an individual to remain a government employee if he wishes to retire or resign."
Purchia pointed to a memo sent early this year by Administrator Gina McCarthy to EPA staff, where she urged employees to work with the IG’s office. "I expect all employees to report fraud, waste and abuse to the OIG if they see it," McCarthy wrote.
Homeland security spat
The IG’s office and EPA management still haven’t ironed out their differences in a long-standing turf war involving the agency’s homeland security office, Elkins said today.
The inspector general’s office has complained to Congress that the homeland security office has overstepped its bounds, blocking watchdogs’ access to information and perhaps keeping them from rooting out fraudsters, while EPA officials have said they’re working with the IG’s office to find a workable solution.
One outstanding problem, Elkins said, is that there’s a criminal investigator working in the homeland security office, even though the office lacks investigative authority. "With regard to the OHS criminal investigator, we cannot know whether OHS continues to conduct investigative activity," Elkins said today (Greenwire, May 15, 2014).
Elkins has also complained that EPA managers have asserted that there’s a category of information defined as "intelligence" that they weren’t required to share with the IG. That impeded watchdogs’ abilities to investigate threats, misconduct and computer intrusions, he said.
OIG officials have met multiple times with senior EPA officials to address those issues and have reached "at least a theoretical agreement," Elkins said. But the two sides are only beginning to implement agreements, he said. Additionally, he said, the IG’s office has yet to sit down with EPA and the FBI to confirm that the FBI doesn’t require the withholding of information from the IG and that EPA will share information the IG has been seeking.