Three whistleblowers told a House committee on Wednesday of the Environmental Protection Agency’s inability to properly discipline an employee charged with sexual harassment and the retribution they faced for speaking out against that employee, while lawmakers took the occasion to once again call for federal agencies to fire more workers.
EPA responded to a 24-year-old intern’s complaint that a 62-year-old employee was inappropriately touching and kissing her by moving the intern four cubicles away from the older employee, the whistleblowers said. While they were looking into the intern’s accusations, more women came forward to unveil inappropriate behavior by the same employee. Carolyn Bohlen, who works in EPA’s superfund division, said management knew about the employee’s advances “for years.”
The employee was eventually flagged for dismissal before being allowed to retire, but lawmakers said that action was not harsh or prompt enough.
“One of the most toxic environments is at the EPA,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “How ironic. The EPA is supposed to protect the environment.” Citing reports from EPA employees, Chaffetz called the harassing employee a “predator who was fed a steady diet of interns.”
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy also testified at the hearing, defending the agency’s discipline of the employee in question and saying any perceived retaliation against the whistleblowers was actually based on the employees’ poor performance. McCarthy also defended the “overwhelming majority” of EPA employees as “dedicated, hardworking, professional public servants.”
She acknowledged, however, the overall disciplinary process can improve and said she is working with the EPA inspector general to enable the agency to “more expeditiously take administrative action with regard to certain employee misconduct.”
“While I firmly believe these employees are isolated examples,” McCarthy said of the string of scandals involving EPA workers in recent years, “I believe we can always do better.”
Karen Kellen, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents 8,500 EPA employees, said a good place to start in making it easier to speak out against employee malfeasance is to disrupt the philosophy that “the manager is always right.” She suggested EPA develop a “feedback loop” that encourages rank-and-file employees to deliver information to senior leadership.
McCarthy repeatedly told lawmakers she was developing, in consultation with EPA’s unions, EPA’s first-ever procedures for dealing with allegations of harassment.
“The order will provide for uniformity and transparency about expectations related to processing complaints of harassment, procedures for reporting and responding to complaints and guidance for engaging in related fact-finding and decision making,” McCarthy said. “We hope to conclude this process in the very near future.”
The hearing eventually turned into a larger discussion on the process for firing federal employees, as well as the role of the EPA in general. Several Republicans criticized McCarthy for regulations affecting parochial interests in their districts, while Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said the entire hearing was designed to carry out a “clear agenda against the EPA.”
Chaffetz continued his call for the removal of malfeasant and poorly performing feds, while noting most employees are good at their jobs.
“You get that many people together, there’s going to be some bad apples,” Chaffetz said. “We want to work with the unions, with the employees, with the administration and with Congress; let’s weed out those bad apples. Let’s hold them accountable.”
The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., joined McCarthy in defending the need for due process in the disciplinary process. The whistleblowers at the hearing said they would no longer hold their jobs if not for the civil service protections.