Lawmakers Wonder 'How Much Porn' It Takes to Fire an EPA Employee

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., greets Bob Perciasepe, EPA deputy administrator, before the House Oversight and Government Reform full committee hearing on Wednesday. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., greets Bob Perciasepe, EPA deputy administrator, before the House Oversight and Government Reform full committee hearing on Wednesday. Molly Riley/AP

Tensions between the inspector general and main staff at the Environmental Protection Agency spilled into the open on Wednesday at a House oversight hearing that veered into EPA’s inability to prevent individual employee misconduct ranging from porn viewing on the job, to falsifying attendance records, to an alleged workplace assault on an investigative agent.

“The EPA is truly a broken agency,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in reeling off a string of stories of personnel misconduct still under adjudication in the wake of the December sentencing of EPA air quality specialist John Beale to 32 months in prison for bilking the agency of salary and expenses while performing little work under the guise of moonlighting for the CIA. What ties these stories together, according to Issa, is that the IG’s office is being blocked from uncovering the facts.

The cases, detailed by witnesses from the inspector general’s office, include a $120,000 a year, bonus-winning, still active employee who spent two to six hours a day visiting porn websites and downloading 7,000 pornographic files to an agency shared server. Another involves the human resources manager who failed to spot Beale’s fraudulent explanations for his absences, and a third involves an ill employee confined for a year in an assisted living facility but still collecting full pay.

A fourth, perhaps most dramatic, episode involves an allegation that Steven Williams of EPA’s Office of Homeland Security in October 2013 committed an “assault” on Office of the Inspector General special agent Elisabeth Heller Drake in an EPA hallway as she sought to inform him of his obligation to remain silent about what she termed her “difficult” interview with him on an investigation.

Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe defended the EPA, expressing a variety of regrets about the Beale case. He shared a plan for improving “much needed” communication with the IG’s office, but said he was unfamiliar with specific cases and reminded lawmakers that federal employees accused of wrongdoing are entitled to due process.

The hearing’s putative theme centered on complaints from the IG’s office about being “impeded” by EPA’s Office of Homeland Security, a 10-person staff in the administrator’s suite set up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to gauge environmental threats to national security. The office “refuses to share threat information, which is unacceptable and dangerous,” said Patrick Sullivan, assistant inspector general for investigations. “It is puts my investigators at risk and harks back to days before 9/11, when agencies did not communicate. If OHS continues to block my access, I cannot guarantee we can root out future John Beales.”

Perciasepe promised to provide Sullivan with better information, with permission from the FBI. “We do not want IGs to have a problem with access to EPA, and that goal is paramount,” Perciasepe said, pointing to 2,600 audits from the IG in recent years and a new biweekly senior staff meeting to coordinate. “A healthy IG is needed to deal with issues of waste, fraud and abuse.”

Perciasepe said EPA had issued two reports on the Beale case and “taken corrective actions” that include adopting seven Government Accountability Office guidelines to build in new bookkeeping safeguards tracking payroll, employee departures and travel reimbursements. “All in the agency were profoundly offended by Beale’s actions, and you can be sure no one at EPA now is claiming to be working for the CIA,” he added. “In hindsight, it would have been better to have referred Beale to the IG right away” rather than going first to human resources, Perciasepe said.

“The OHS had first crack at Beale,” Sullivan said, “and we later learned he was potentially able to backtrack and destroy records” and then refer inquiries to his lawyer.

Ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., expressed hope that the interagency communications problems being aired at the hearing would be resolved during a meeting planned for next week among employees from the EPA, its IG and the FBI.

Drake, speaking on her own behalf about the alleged assault, described how EPA Senior Intelligence Adviser Steven Williams, in resisting her effort to warn homeland security specialist Martin not to discuss her investigation, “invaded my personal space and jabbed his finger at me inches from my chest.” She said she heard Martin discussing the case with staff from the EPA General Counsel’s Office, which resulted in a hallway shouting match. The upshot, Drake testified, was that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy halted her investigation with no action against Martin.

The more sensational details on “time and attendance” employee misconduct came from Allan Williams, EPA’s deputy assistant inspector general for investigations, who noted that the employee who used pornography did so in the presence of an IG investigator. “True deterrence of employee misconduct at the EPA ultimately rests with agency executives and managers to set a tone that ensures such behavior will not be condoned,” he said, adding that the porn case has been referred to the Justice Department.

“How much porn would it take for an EPA employee to lose their job?” Issa shouted at the EPA deputy. “One of the 600 sites he visited in a four-day period was called 'Sadism is beautiful,' ” he added, inviting Perciasepe to view the details “in camera” but declining to put the porn site list in the hearing record.

“Such instances are not the norm,” Perciasepe replied. “We have a service that blocks porn, but the world stays ahead of it and we’re trying to catch up. We do a pretty good job, with the help of the IG.” But Perciasepe offered no detailed response to the misconduct cases. “The court and administrative processes I believe are still at work, and if I say anything it corrupts the integrity of the process, that means more trouble down the road, which I think you understand,” he said.

“You are running an organization in which no one can be fired,” Issa said, noting that in the private sector, firings are more commonplace. “Is it a crime to falsify records, saying you’re working when you’re not working?” he asked. "I’m disappointed. I’m shocked and appalled.”

Perciasepe agreed that false records make a crime, and said he found the incident Drake described “disturbing,” adding that other employees have filed hostile workplace complaints. But he said he wouldn’t characterize EPA’s responses as doing nothing. “The Federal Protective Service suggested we handle [the Drake case] administratively, and the IG agreed” to refer it to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which has assigned a probe to the Defense Department IG. “Gina and I are concerned first and foremost with employee safety,” Perciasepe said.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., called the porn-viewing episode a “three-ring circus that is embarrassing and depressing” and EPA a “merry-go-round for ripping off the taxpayers.”

But Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., questioned the hearing’s title, “Is EPA Leadership Obstructing Its Own Inspector General?” The main thing, he said, appears to be “dispute over homeland security.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the alleged assault on Office of the Inspector General special agent Elisabeth Heller Drake. 

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