EPA officials deny discrimination

By Kellie Lunney

October 5, 2000

klunney@govexec.com

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency vigorously defended their agency's commitment to diversity yesterday during a House hearing that focused on allegations of widespread discrimination and retaliation.

The House Science Committee heard testimony from a black senior manager at EPA who won a $600,000 verdict in a race and sex discrimination suit against the agency in August, and other witnesses who provided egregious examples of alleged discrimination throughout the agency.

EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner cited her agency's accomplishments in promoting diversity within the agency's higher ranks and in ensuring fairness throughout EPA.

"We have changed the composition of EPA's highest senior level advisory committees to better reflect the agency's workforce. In addition, minority representation in grades 13 and above has increased by 116 percent since 1993 from 1,086 in 1993 to 2,348 in 2000," said Browner.

In August, EPA employees held a press conference in Washington alleging widespread discrimination at the agency.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a black senior policy analyst at EPA, won a race and sex discrimination suit against the agency this past summer. Testifying at yesterday's hearing, Coleman-Adebayo said her colleagues at EPA regarded her as "an honorary white man" and was told her managers considered her "uppity." While working in EPA's Office of International Activities, Coleman-Adebayo, who has a doctorate in international and African development, said she was replaced by a white man with no background in Africa.

Adebayo said the EPA's statistics on diversity and discrimination at the agency does not tell the whole story.

"By claiming that discrimination (based on the numbers) is not a problem, Browner gives permission for it to continue," said Coleman-Adebayo.

Other allegations of discrimination and retaliation at EPA involved a female black environmental specialist at the agency, who said she was singled out by her supervisor during a 1993 business trip to North Carolina and asked to clean a toilet before Browner's arrival. The woman was the only black employee on the trip.

Browner called for an inspector general investigation into the matter last month.

Another incident involved Rosemarie Russo, director of the EPA's Office of Research and Development laboratory in Athens, Ga. Russo alleges the agency retaliated against her-reassigning her to Washington, D.C.-after she testified before Congress about problems with EPA science and the harassment of an employee.

Browner defended her agency's strong commitment to a fair and diverse workplace. "We have undertaken an intense and sustained level of activity, designed to build an institutional culture that is fair, equitable and supportive of each member of our workforce. These efforts have included the collaborative creation of diversity action plans, training programs and a thorough review of hiring, promotion and award practices," she said.

Browner said her agency is working on increasing senior managers' accountability in building and maintaining a diverse workplace, improving diversity training and bringing in a national expert in workplace diversity to review current agency policies and make recommendations.

"In an agency as large as EPA, there will always be challenges, but we are committed to doing whatever is needed to achieve diversity and fairness in the EPA workplace," said Browner.

Browner pledged that no one testifying at the hearing would be retaliated against for coming forward with their allegations against the agency. She also said any EPA employees attending the hearing would be able to take administrative leave.

"While we do not expect Administrator Browner to prevent every misdeed, we do expect the administrator to ensure that appropriate disciplinary actions occur and that claims are adequately investigated. EPA managers of officials that have been found to discriminate, harass and intimidate other EPA employees or the public should be disciplined. That does not appear to happen," said House Science Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis.

Some committee members expressed frustration over the privacy restrictions placed on EPA in responding to allegations of discrimination at the agency. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, declared, "It is unfair and clearly undemocratic how we have made this forum advantageous to some and not to all. We have provided some an opportunity to discuss the issue before us without limits and others, such as the administrator of the EPA, with a forum that only allows her to discuss matters with the limits of the law-specifically the Privacy Act."

The Privacy Act, passed in the aftermath of Watergate, restricts the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by federal agencies.

"Discrimination is intolerable and even a single case of discrimination is one case too many. However, I do not believe the Committee has gathered sufficient information to determine whether these cases represent isolated instances of problems or are indeed evidence of widespread discrimination problems at this agency," said Rep. Jerry F. Costello, D-Ill.

Costello asked agency officials how the EPA compares with other federal agencies in terms of the number of EEO complaints it receives. "I believe the agency compares favorably with other agencies," said Romulo L. Diaz Jr., assistant administrator for Administration and Resources Management at EPA.

Diaz said the EPA has had 623 discrimination complaints since 1993, and 57 percent of those complaints were resolved early on.

Since 1993, EPA has terminated 112 people for misconduct. This misconduct included repeated absences without leave and poor performance. Of the 112, 67 percent were minorities.


By Kellie Lunney

October 5, 2000

http://www.govexec.com/federal-news/2000/10/epa-officials-deny-discrimination/7823/