U.S. EPA employees caught watching pornography on the job expressed surprise, boredom and ultimately regret for their actions, according to documents obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act.
Investigators for the EPA inspector general secured sworn statements by employees "A" and "B" — two agency workers who were found to be viewing and downloading porn while at work. Those records, along with the agency watchdog's investigative reports, shed more light on cases that have become a national embarrassment for EPA, leading to hearings, legislation and ridicule on Capitol Hill.
The heavily redacted documents obscure the identities of the agency's infamous porn watchers under FOIA's various privacy exemptions and took more than a year to be released in response to E&E News' public records requests. Employee A and Employee B earned their monikers from written testimony given by EPA Assistant IG for Investigations Patrick Sullivan to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a hearing last year.
In April 2014, Employee B — who worked in the Office of the Administrator — was witnessed viewing porn on his government laptop during work hours by a child who was visiting EPA for the agency's "Bring Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day," according to Sullivan's congressional testimony.
"This constitutes a mistake and a lack of judgement on my side and I am sorry for the judgement," said Employee B in his handwritten statement given to agents for the EPA IG.
He confessed to viewing porn at work, taking about an hour or more during each workday in looking at "facebook & twitter accounts" that linked to websites with "photos of nude people."
Employee B collected the photos on thumb drives but denied any more inappropriate behavior on his part.
"I never masturbated at the office or any EPA facility," said the employee in his statement, noting "the body fluids noticed may have been the result of [redacted] disinfecting my hands after going to the bathroom."
In addition, "no kid porn was ever seen or downloaded."
On the day the employee was interviewed by EPA IG agents in May 2014, he was placed on administrative or paid leave. Almost a year later in March 2015, EPA would propose to remove the employee from the agency.
Monica Lee, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency could not comment on Employee B's status at the agency.
"While we cannot and will not comment on this specific matter, EPA policies prohibit accessing pornography using government resources, and discipline for any employee proven to have done so is up to and including removal from federal service," Lee said.
In addition, the IG's report on the employee notes that the agency watchdog believed he had misused government time and resources by watching porn on the job. Investigators brought the case to the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia, but the office declined prosecution.
'some internet surfing'
Employee A was not as contrite as his counterpart B, at least according to investigators for the inspector general. The report on his case said the EPA worker believed he was not in the wrong.
"[Redacted] stated he did not believe he was doing anything 'wrong' by accessing pornographic websites because he was completing the work his supervisor required him to do and that other employees within his division spend much of their assigned duty hours doing 'personal' things other than official EPA business," said the report.
Employee A, however, was more remorseful in his handwritten statement given to IG agents.
"They discussed the ethics of doing the downloading on government property and time and I admitted that I recognized that my actions were inappropriate and I realized that at the time but couldn't help myself resist the temptation when time was slack at work," said the employee.
He also admitted to other misbehavior while on the job.
"They asked me if I had behaved inappropriately in my cube hinting that they had found evidence of semen on my laptop," said Employee A in his statement. "I told them I did not masturbate in the cubicle but admitted that I had done so while sitting on the toilet in the mens room."
When asked why he had not waited to watch porn at home instead of at work, Employee A said he didn't want someone — his or her name was blacked out in his statement, seemingly his spouse or child — catching him in the act.
"They asked me if I did any of the surfing/downloading at home and I said no. The reason being I wouldn't want my [redacted] to see me doing it," said the employee.
The employee admitted that he got into the habit of downloading pictures of "playboy models" and that he could get his assigned work done while doing "some internet surfing." Further, he noted that he had received several performance awards for his work at EPA.
Employee A denied downloading any child pornography.
The employee was surprised when IG agents told him that his downloaded photos were being sent to a shared drive where his colleagues could find them.
"I didn’t understand how that happened since I thought I was downloading to a thumb drive," he said in his statement.
Like with Employee B, the inspector general believed Employee A had misused government time and resources by watching and organizing porn while at work. Investigators again brought the case to the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia, but the office declined prosecution.
Employee A — a geologist in EPA's Office of Air and Radiation — was found to have downloaded more than 7,000 files or 1.3 gigabytes of pornographic files on an agency server, according to Sullivan's testimony last year.
He was actually caught viewing porn in September 2013 when an IG agent stopped by his office to schedule an interview with him. Employee A was placed on paid leave in May 2014, and by March 2015, EPA proposed to remove him from the agency. He retired from his government job in April that year.
Incidents like those involving employees A and B have become catnip for EPA's critics in Congress.
Those cases and others involving child porn and sexual harassment have sparked hearings on Capitol Hill as well as legislation that moved through committee and then was approved on the House floor.
Employees A and B came under heavy scrutiny at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in April last year when Sullivan testified. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the panel, expressed disgust that EPA kept employees who were caught watching porn on the job on paid leave for months instead of dismissing them immediately.
"If you're sitting watching hours of porn on your government computer, fire 'em! Fire 'em!" Chaffetz said (Greenwire, April 30, 2015).
In March this year, the Oversight panel passed by voice vote a Chaffetz-authored bill that would limit agencies' use of paid leave for misbehaving employees. The chairman cited EPA's giving paid leave to a worker found to be watching porn during work hours as reason for his legislation.
EPA has since revised its administrative leave policy. At an Oversight panel hearing in May, acting EPA Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg said the agency has capped paid leave to 10 days with limited exceptions, and management has sought to interact more with the IG, with senior officials and the agency watchdog meeting biweekly to check in on misconduct cases.
"We feel in the last year we made considerable progress moving forward," Meiburg said at the hearing (Greenwire, May 18).
Sullivan also appeared at the hearing and agreed with Meiburg's assessment, noting in his written testimony that EPA's "internal adjudication process has dramatically improved."
The EPA inspector general also has studied the use of paid leave at the agency and found several employees had spent months out of the office but were still on the payroll as their misconduct was investigated, according to a November 2015 report (Greenwire, Nov. 9, 2015).
Jeff Lagda, an EPA IG spokesman, noted that the agency has changed its paid leave policy but the IG has not yet done an audit on those new guidelines.
"As a result of our recommendations, the agency updated its administrative leave policy. Based on this new policy, we have closed our recommendations. However, we have not conducted a follow-up audit and thus cannot conclude whether or not the EPA's revised administrative leave policy is adequate," Lagda said.
Other legislation has made progress in the House in response to EPA employees caught watching porn while at work.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) introduced legislation last year that would have the Office of Management and Budget issue guidelines for federal computers to prohibit access to porn and other explicit websites. That legislation, however, might not be necessary.
EPA already has policy in place that prohibits the personal use of government computers for viewing such sites. Further, EPA is not the only agency where porn on the job is an issue; it is a problem elsewhere in the federal government as well (Greenwire, March 25, 2015).
Nevertheless, the bill has moved forward in the House. In July, the House approved legislation that made several changes to toughen up federal personnel policies, including language similar to Meadows' bill that blocks government computers from accessing online porn (E&E Daily, July 7).
EPA has taken other steps to help managers deal with allegations of misconduct by employees. Lee said EPA issued an order last year on how to address charges of workplace harassment and set up mandatory online training for all employees that explains the agency's anti-harassment policies and protections.
"Harassment of any kind is prohibited at the EPA and will not be tolerated," Lee said.
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