U.S. EPA’s internal watchdog has put the White House on notice that its lean budgets could hinder its efforts to root out waste and fraud.
EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins sent a memo this past fall, obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act, to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney taking issue with the administration’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal. The blueprint, which will be released next month, creates "a significant challenge" for the agency watchdog’s oversight mission, according to Elkins.
"A budget at this level would destabilize the OIG and have an immediate negative impact on the OIG’s production capacity. As such, I do not agree with the OMB budget request, and argue that such a proposal would substantially inhibit the OIG from performing the duties of the office, including mandatory OIG responsibilities explicitly required by federal law," Elkins said in the Sept. 7, 2017, memo, which was signed on his behalf by Deputy Inspector General Charles Sheehan.
OMB press officials didn’t respond to messages asking for comment for this story.
The budget battle comes as Elkins and his staff have opened up several probes over the past year into actions taken by the Trump EPA, including by Administrator Scott Pruitt. The IG has begun an audit of Pruitt’s travel and is looking into other issues, including spending on the EPA chief’s personal security detail.
In his memo, the watchdog said OMB’s fiscal 2018 proposal for his office, a funding request of nearly $37.5 million, served as the basis of the fiscal 2019 request, which asked for a higher sum of $41 million. Congress has yet to pass fiscal 2018 appropriations, but once it does, lawmakers are likely to send more funds to the inspector general than the administration has requested.
Still, Elkins warned Mulvaney the administration’s fiscal 2019 blueprint would harm the IG’s investigators’ ability to pick up projects of their own choosing.
"A budget of $41 million will virtually eliminate the OIG’s ability to perform discretionary audits and program evaluations," Elkins said.
"These services assist EPA leadership and Congress, help to hold the agency accountable, and are valuable management tools that represent a substantial source of the OIG’s ability to produce a positive return on investment to taxpayers," he said.
In addition, the IG is the only office at EPA conducting its mandatory audits and investigations.
"As such, untimely products due to limited resources create an unacceptable risk to the agency and to the taxpayers’ investment," Elkins said.
He urged OMB to recognize the work the IG has done in reshaping EPA’s workforce as well as the "greater vulnerability" the agency would face with less IG funding and "the loss of return on investment it would represent." Elkins also asked OMB to recognize his budget request of $62 million for the watchdog office.
If not, he asked that his memo be included with President Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget request, which will now be released Feb. 12 (Greenwire, Jan. 24).
EPA’s inspector general also detailed its budget problems in its latest semiannual report, released this past November.
The report said EPA staff had not consulted with the IG on the watchdog’s budget proposal. Without input from the inspector general, the agency slated $42 million for the office and said OMB mandated certain funding levels that would not change (Greenwire, Nov. 17, 2017).
IG spokeswoman Tia Elbaum clarified to E&E News that the total fiscal 2019 budget request by Trump for the watchdog office stands at $41.38 million. Elkins rounded that number down to $41 million in his memo to OMB.
The budget dispute sparked Elkins’s memo, but raising funding worries is not new for Elkins or the IG office.
Last year, the IG wrote a similar memo to OMB expressing concern about low funding for the watchdog. Elkins said the fiscal 2018 budget plan, with a proposed 30 percent cut for EPA, would "destabilize" the IG and have "an immediate negative impact" on its production, according to the April 14, 2017, letter slotted in the final pages of the agency’s appropriations justification.
Elbaum said the IG has sent OMB memos expressing funding concerns in the past, including for requests for fiscal 2009 as well as for fiscal 2014 through 2019.
Capitol Hill may come to the inspector general’s rescue in securing more funds for the office.
Last month, Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee wrote a letter to appropriators overseeing EPA’s budget to support "adequate funding" for the IG. They said while the Senate spending bill would cut the watchdog’s budget less than Trump’s budget plan, it is still not enough "to ensure that OIG will be able to effectively perform its important mission."
"FY18 funding for the EPA OIG should be no less than the funding the office received in FY17, adjusted for inflation," the senators said in the letter.