Sexual harassment investigation sparks more probes

By Kevin Bogardus | 03/08/2017 01:06 PM EST

U.S. EPA headquarters in Washington.

U.S. EPA headquarters in Washington. Photo by U.S. EPA, courtesy of Flickr.

A sexual harassment investigation by U.S. EPA’s internal watchdog has mushroomed, leading to separate probes at the agency.

An EPA inspector general report obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act sheds more light on a continuing investigation of the agency’s Region 5 branch that began roughly a year and half ago.

The closing report, though heavily redacted, shows that senior officials at EPA’s IG office have followed the investigation into sexual harassment allegations at the agency’s Chicago office that is also looking into charges of retaliation against whistleblowers who brought those allegations forward.

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The document also details that special agents with the EPA inspector general uncovered new information that led to at least two new investigations being opened. All three probes are still ongoing, Jeff Lagda, an EPA IG spokesman, told E&E News.

The EPA IG’s sexual harassment investigation was initiated after a July 2015 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing where several EPA workers testified about a former Region 5 employee harassing female co-workers for nearly a decade, including a 24-year-old research fellow (Greenwire, July 29, 2015).

Consequently, Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter on Sept. 1, 2015, to the EPA inspector general, requesting an investigation into "whether Region 5 managers appropriately handled allegations of sexual harassment, and whether managers retaliated against employees who raised concerns."

Later that month, an EPA IG special agent received that letter in the watchdog’s Chicago field office, according to the report, which is dated Feb. 11, 2016.

Agents for the inspector general then began interviewing individuals, including one who said "management ignored prior reports of sexual harassment and minimized the reported cases of sexual harassment." Another provided "details of the sexual harassment charges and management’s inaction to these allegations." Agents also spoke to witnesses of sexual harassment, according to the report.

In addition, agents found "information" that was not related to the sexual harassment probe.

"This information was significant enough to necessitate opening a new case on the matter," the report said.

It’s not clear what investigators are looking into with that new case — Lagda couldn’t comment on the case, since it is still ongoing.

Further, IG agents also spoke to one individual about what he or she knew about the sexual harassment allegations. An agent then opened a complaint, its title redacted.

Again, it’s not clear what the focus of the complaint is. Lagda said the complaint was "an ongoing investigation, so we cannot disclose any specific details about the complaint."

‘Fire these people’

The sexual harassment investigation has attracted high-level attention from the EPA inspector general’s office. The report states that on Dec. 1, 2015, Deputy IG Charles Sheehan, Assistant IG for Investigations Patrick Sullivan, Assistant IG for Audit Kevin Christensen and Counsel to the IG Alan Larsen met with three special agents — their names redacted — to "discuss the future plans of the case," according to the report.

They agreed that the IG’s Office of Audit should handle the case. That decision was made public in August of last year when the IG office issued a notice that it planned to review allegations of sexual harassment in Region 5 and how managers responded to those allegations (Greenwire, Aug. 16, 2016).

An EPA spokeswoman referred questions from E&E News about the investigation of sexual harassment allegations at Region 5 to the IG office.

Capitol Hill is keeping an eye on the EPA Region 5 sexual harassment investigation. In a statement to E&E News, Chaffetz said those responsible should be let go by the agency.

"These individuals face inadequate repercussions and in some cases are even promoted," said Chaffetz. "This is a new administration. If you want to send the right message, show zero tolerance and fire these people. It’s inexcusable."

One Democratic staffer for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee told E&E News that the panel has been in contact with the agency’s inspector general about the matter.

"We are continuing to monitor the investigations and have been in touch with the IG regarding the status," the staffer said.

EPA has worked to better address allegations of misconduct made against its employees. At a hearing last May, then-acting Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg said the agency had streamlined its disciplinary process and senior EPA officials and staff with the inspector general were meeting twice a week to discuss misconduct cases (Greenwire, May 18, 2016).

EPA’s Chicago office has found itself under scrutiny in recent years.

The inspector general is investigating EPA’s lackluster response to the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis. Susan Hedman resigned as Region 5 administrator after that situation came to light (Greenwire, Jan. 22, 2016).

In addition, a former EPA Region 5 employee was indicted last November for allegedly possessing child pornography and stealing agency computer equipment (Greenwire, Nov. 7, 2016).

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