U.S. EPA officials have been hampering the work of their in-house watchdogs as cases of employee misconduct including theft and pornography continue to hound the agency, according to a new inspector general report.
EPA's IG sharply criticized the agency in his latest report to Congress last week for improperly blocking his office's access to information. The agency has prevented the Office of Inspector General from obtaining information about threats, misconduct and computer intrusions, and failed to notify watchdogs about a raft of stolen computers, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins wrote to lawmakers.
The watchdog office also detailed recent reports of employee bad behavior ranging from property theft to broader management problems that allowed long-term fraud to go undetected. Employees have stolen government cameras and grant money, collected pay for years without working, and watched pornography on the job, according to the report.
Meanwhile, long-standing recommendations from the watchdog office continue to gather dust, according to a separate report released last week by the OIG. That report details dozens of IG suggestions for rooting out waste, fraud and abuse that EPA still hasn't implemented, dating back as far as 2001.
Elkins' findings will likely serve as fuel for GOP lawmakers who have criticized EPA management recently in the wake of high-profile scandals involving the former fake spy John Beale and other cases of employee misconduct.
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said today that the new report highlights how "the EPA's refusal to provide access to critical information hinders the OIG's ability to conduct meaningful oversight." He added, "In the aftermath of the fraud case of EPA employee John C. Beale and the case of EPA employees viewing pornography and other time and attendance abuses, it is clear that internal watchdogs need complete agency cooperation in order to fully address mismanagement and employee misconduct."
Among the most pressing problems flagged by Elkins is his long-standing complaint that EPA's Office of Homeland Security is improperly blocking the watchdog office from getting information (Greenwire, Nov. 7).
"OHS refused access to information when OIG requested it, and failed to refer certain information to the OIG," Elkins wrote. That has included classified threat information against EPA employees and facilities, employee misconduct, cyber intrusions, and matters that OHS defines as "intelligence" or national security information. The OIG requested a briefing about all threat information possessed by the OHS in May, but EPA has yet to provide that briefing, according to the report.
EPA chief Gina McCarthy has attempted to put a halt to the internal sparring by laying out boundaries for the two offices when it comes to handling matters related to national security or intelligence, but the IG's office says it won't be satisfied until it has access to all intelligence information available to the agency.
Elkins' office was also irked that EPA failed to notify his office after 72 computers worth more than $84,000 went missing from the agency's Atlanta-based Region 4 office in 2012. The OIG received an anonymous tip about the computers in 2013 and started a criminal investigation that led to the arrest and indictment of a former EPA IT contractor.
The regional office did contact the Federal Protective Service police force about the matter, according to EPA, and has since updated its procedures to include notifying the OIG about similar matters.
The IG's office has asked McCarthy to send a clear message to employees that they must cooperate with watchdogs, similar to a memorandum sent in 2009 by then-EPA chief Lisa Jackson.
"However, to date, this has not occurred," Elkins said, even though "instances of agency failure to cooperate with OIG work have been occurring. The OIG believes that an unambiguous and strong message is needed from the administrator to the entire EPA workforce setting forth the requirement and expectation of cooperation with, and the providing of access to, the OIG."
McCarthy responded to Elkins' report last month, saying she thought the "vast majority of work done between OIG staff and EPA staff has been cooperative and productive."
She said she's committed to ensuring that the OIG has the information it needs to fulfill its mission, and wants to learn immediately about OIG concerns with employees' assistance so she can "address them proactively."
Theft, death threat and porn cases
The IG report lists a series of recent misconduct cases at EPA involving employees watching pornography at work, stealing government property, making a death threat, and requiring subordinates to bring a supervisor's lunch and park her car, among others.
In one case, an investigation found information to support claims that a GS-13 employee had viewed and downloaded pornographic materials with an EPA-issued computer through EPA's network during working hours. That case is still pending, and is listed among those in which EPA hasn't shared a decision about administrative action with the OIG.
A GS-13 public affairs specialist in EPA's Region 4 office was accused of stealing more than $3,000 worth of government cameras and has been indicted by a Georgia grand jury. Another EPA employee stole more than $5,000 in grant funds from a U.S.-Mexico border program, according to the OIG. That employee agreed to pay back the funds and take a pay-grade demotion.
A former EPA contractor pleaded guilty earlier this year to threatening to kill his former colleague. In 2013, the former contract security officer called a female security officer working at EPA headquarters and threatened to kill her, according to the OIG. When he was later arrested, firearms and ammunition were seized from his residence. He served 10 days in prison and was sentenced to nine months of probation by the District of Columbia Superior Court.
One former EPA employee was allowed to stay home and collect pay for 20 years without doing much work, the OIG said. An agency supervisor said he had allowed that person to stay home and receive full pay and benefits for six years without working, at a cost of more than $600,000. It was easier to do that than to go through the retirement process and deal with the employee union, the supervisor told investigators. The employee has since retired, and the supervisor was put on administrative leave and barred from the EPA premises in July.
Watchdogs also investigated a senior EPA employee who admitted to improperly having her subordinates perform tasks like parking her car and bringing her lunch. She retired in April, before EPA took any administrative action against her.
The IG's office has also continued to perform investigations into the scandal surrounding former EPA air official Beale, who lied for years about doing secret work for the CIA while getting paid for time off. Beale is now serving in a federal prison.
An OIG investigation determined that the senior EPA employee who was responsible for overseeing Beale's attendance records and travel vouchers lacked due diligence and cost taxpayers nearly $185,000.
Investigators issued a report in April identifying that employee as career EPA staffer Beth Craig, who served as deputy assistant administrator in the air office for several years and is now director of the Climate Protection Partnership Division in the air office. The report found she had engaged in "employee misconduct" when she signed off on Beale's time sheets and travel vouchers, according to a copy of the report obtained by E&E Publishing (E&ENews PM, April 30).
A spokesman for the IG's office said he couldn't divulge the names or titles of the employees involved in the misconduct cases.
OIG's suggestions idle for years
EPA also still hasn't taken action on some IG recommendations dating back as far as 2001, according to the IG's regular report pointing out which of its suggestions haven't yet been completed by the agency.
Among the most significant suggestions EPA hasn't acted on, according to the OIG, is that EPA fully implement a national emergency equipment tracking system. The agency had spent $2.8 million as of October 2010 to develop a module to keep track of emergency equipment, but EPA hasn't fully implemented the module, and it suffers from operational issues, according to the OIG.
Another outstanding recommendation comes from a 2011 report, when the OIG found EPA needed workload data to better justify its future workload levels. Watchdogs urged EPA to conduct a pilot project requiring EPA organizations to collect and analyze workload data for key projects, but EPA missed the original deadline of Sept. 30, 2012.
And EPA officials still haven't acted on several 2001 recommendations to modernize the Permit Compliance System for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, the OIG said. That report found that state enforcement of discharge permits, which limit pollutants in surface water, "could be much more effective in deterring noncompliance" and, ultimately, "improving the quality of the nation's waters."
EPA issued a draft NPDES electronic reporting rule last year and plans to issue a final rule by May 2015.