EPA Inspector General Sean O’Donnell’s appointment as acting watchdog for the Defense Department came as a shock to his own staff.
Emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal-leaning public interest group, show officials in the EPA Office of Inspector General struggling to answer questions from reporters as well as assuage concerns from colleagues after O’Donnell was named to the post in early April. Employees worried over how the IG simultaneously serving as internal watchdog for two sprawling federal agencies would affect their work.
"What exactly will this mean for us with Sean acting for DOD also?" one auditor asked in an email.
Kathlene Butler, acting assistant inspector general for audit and evaluation at EPA, responded, "Yeah … we don’t know yet, and neither does Sean. He says he’s hoping this will be a short-lived responsibility."
She added the person O’Donnell was replacing would remain at the Pentagon’s IG office.
"Glenn Fine will still be at DOD, so hopefully he’ll still be able to basically run things. Remains to be seen!" Butler said.
Prior to his demotion, Fine had been acting IG at the Pentagon, but he was also picked to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. The board, a group of IGs across the federal government, was set up to conduct oversight of over $2 trillion in federal relief spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Trump’s removal of Fine from the IG spot at the Defense Department also meant he was no longer chair of the pandemic accountability committee. That led to an outcry from lawmakers as well as speculation in the EPA IG office as to why Fine was no longer the Pentagon’s inspector general.
"Maybe bc Glenn Fine is also chairing the CIGIE CARES oversight group?" Butler asked in an email.
A colleague responded, "That would be a good reason."
Others in the EPA IG office wondered what they could tell reporters.
"Is this something we can confirm at this point? I would think prudence dictates we would refer to the WH press office to make the announcement," said Eric Hanger, the EPA watchdog office’s deputy counsel, in one email.
Trump has been on a spree of firing inspectors general in recent months, resulting in criticism that he and his administration are trying to avoid accountability from the agency watchdogs that root out government waste and fraud.
Trump told reporters last month that the IGs have not been fair to his administration.
"I think we’ve been treated very unfairly by inspector generals. I can go into instances, but I’m not going to do it now," Trump said. "We’ve had a lot of cases where we thought that was unfair."
Donald Sherman, deputy director for CREW, told E&E News the EPA inspector general being named to another watchdog post will spread oversight thin and is another instance of Trump looking to undercut the IGs.
"Over the last several months, the president has been pretty explicit in his desire to undermine the IG community," Sherman said. "These emails confirm that effect. You see the EPA IG staff scrambling, trying to see how this move will impact them and passing on press inquiries to the White House."
EPA IG office spokesman Jeff Lagda told E&E News that work has not stalled at the watchdog office since O’Donnell was named to the Pentagon job.
"While EPA IG O’Donnell has assumed a dual-hatted role as the EPA IG and the acting DOD IG, it has definitely not slowed down the EPA OIG’s mandated responsibility of oversight over the EPA and [Chemical Safety Board]," Lagda said.
"The EPA OIG has a highly experienced staff that continues to aggressively issue audits/evaluations and conduct criminal investigations, including ongoing work reviewing the EPA’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic."
O’Donnell doesn’t expect to be in the Defense Department post for long. "Sean emphasized his DoD IG role is temporary," according to notes of one call.
In April, Trump nominated Jason Abend, a senior policy adviser at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, for the Pentagon IG job.
"Once the DOD nominee is confirmed by the Senate, EPA IG O’Donnell will no longer be the acting DOD IG," Lagda said.
O’Donnell’s adding Pentagon oversight to his duties also attracted the attention of Capitol Hill.
"I suspect you are as surprised as we are by these developments. My colleagues and I have questions," said Brian Eiler, oversight counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Democratic staff, in one email to officials in the EPA IG office.
Those questions included "How did he get the position? Was it something that the IG asked to do? Who approached him? When?" according to another email.
In a statement shared with E&E News, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member on the EPW panel, said O’Donnell has promised him he will hold EPA officials accountable. Carper expects O’Donnell will do the same at the Pentagon as well.
"One of the most significant commitments I secured from Mr. O’Donnell was that he would hold public officials accountable for their actions and protect EPA from waste, fraud, and other abuses of power," Carper said. "If past is prologue, Mr. O’Donnell’s commitment to hold public officials accountable will be just as critical at the Department of Defense. These are not part-time jobs."
Fine learned the afternoon of April 6 that O’Donnell was replacing him.
The two shared a call that day where O’Donnell said, "It is important to me that we have a productive relationship." Fine was returning to his prior post of principal deputy inspector general in the Pentagon’s watchdog office.
The next day, O’Donnell told his new staff, "My commitment to you is to work with PDIG Fine to minimize distractions and continue your good work."
Soon after, news broke of O’Donnell’s appointment at the Pentagon. Fine has now left the watchdog office altogether, offering his resignation the following month.
The move to name O’Donnell as acting IG for Defense seemingly came together quickly. His security clearance hadn’t been transferred over to the Pentagon the day his appointment was announced to staff, according to emails.
Lagda referred questions about O’Donnell’s security clearance to the Defense Department’s IG office. A spokeswoman there said she did not have any information at this time when asked by E&E News about O’Donnell’s security clearance.
Sherman with CREW said having one inspector general job is tough. O’Donnell now has at least twice the trouble.
"Trying to run two large IG shops at the same time is an impossible task. I think that is what the president is hoping for," Sherman said.
Click here to read the emails CREW obtained regarding O’Donnell being named acting DOD IG.