Senators challenge EPA’s transfer of ombudsman

Members of a Senate committee questioned Environmental Protection Agency officials Tuesday about the transfer of its ombudsman and the office's restructuring earlier this year.

In April, EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman transferred National Ombudsman Robert Martin to the agency's inspector general's office and began restructuring the ombudsman's role at the agency. EPA officials said the change resulted from recommendations made in a July 2001 General Accounting Office report. But Martin, who filed suit in January to challenge the change, accused agency officials of stripping him of his duties and resigned.

"The function that I fulfilled for nine and a half years as a career civil servant is gone; it's destroyed," Martin said during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Tuesday. "I was transferred to a nonclassified position and I refused [to go]. To go there would have been a violation of my oath as an ombudsman … and I refused."

Ombudsmen typically deal with a wide range of workplace issues, from answering questions about agency policies to dealing with discrimination charges.

EPA's action limited the ombudsman's ability to respond to the public, according to Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.

"This office should not have its investigative ability restricted, and its independence should not be compromised," said Allard, who introduced the "Ombudsman Reauthorization Act of 2001" (S.606) in March. The bill reauthorizes appropriations for EPA's ombudsman through fiscal 2010 and makes the office independent.

Before introducing his legislation, Allard asked Whitman to delay the move until Congress reviewed the decision. The senator was concerned the change would remove the ombudsman's independence.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., testified that the ombudsman was critical in investigating the EPA's cleanup of debris following the collapse of the World Trade Center.

"Unfortunately, now there is no real ombudsman to keep a watchful eye on the agency," Nadler said. "This is disconcerting because the EPA cleanup is woefully inadequate. The EPA ombudsman is crippled as long as it remains under the control of the inspector general."

EPA decided to shift Martin's duties to the inspector general's office to increase efficiency, said Inspector General Nikki Tinsley. "Given that the ombudsman's role of reviewing agency actions is similar to the work we were created to perform, and because we report to both Congress and the agency, I believe our office was well-suited to assume the investigatory functions of the ombudsman's office," Tinsley said.

Though EPA said GAO's recommendations were the impetus behind the move, an official from GAO questioned the move in his testimony, pointing out that putting the ombudsman in the inspector general's office limits the opportunity for interaction with the public, and removes the ombudsman's ability to hire and fire, control his own budget and select cases to investigate.

"People in the higher administration did not like what he was doing and removed him as retribution for his activities," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn. "He was, in effect, a hair shirt. I'm going to find a way to fix it, either through the confirmation process or the appropriations process."

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