EPA chief vows not to challenge discrimination verdict

In one of her first acts as EPA administrator, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said the agency will not challenge a court decision that awarded an employee $600,000 in damages in a race and sex discrimination lawsuit.

In a Feb. 1 letter, Whitman asked U.S. District Attorney Wilma A. Lewis to drop any challenges to the case involving Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a black senior manager at the agency. Coleman-Adebayo won a $600,000 verdict in a race and sex discrimination suit against EPA last August.

"I believe that swift, final resolution of this issue best serves EPA employees, as well as the plaintiff," Whitman wrote.

Coleman-Adebayo, an EPA employee since 1990, alleged that a colleague at the agency called her "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.

Allegations of widespread discrimination and retaliation against employees plagued the agency last year. In another prominent case, a female black environmental specialist at the agency said she was singled out by her supervisor during a 1993 business trip to North Carolina and asked to clean a toilet before former Administrator Carol M. Browner's arrival. The woman was the only black employee on the trip.

During an emotional hearing before the House Science Committee last October, Browner and other EPA officials vigorously defended the agency's commitment to diversity.

In November, the agency hired the law firm Holland & Knight to evaluate management practices, hiring and promotions policies, and diversity at EPA.

During her confirmation hearing, Whitman voiced her commitment to addressing discrimination and other workplace issues. One of her top priorities will be to ensure all employees understand what constitutes proper behavior, she said. The Senate unanimously confirmed Whitman on Jan. 30.

Whitman officially greeted agency employees Monday at EPA headquarters in Washington. Although she talked about challenges facing the agency, she did not address allegations of discrimination or the Coleman-Adebayo case.

She did, however, praise the dedication and commitment of federal employees to the EPA mission. "Transitions are always unsettling, particularly when there is a change in administration. But I don't see Republicans or Democrats here today; I see dedicated professionals," Whitman said. "Our commitment is to the environment."

The EPA has had 623 discrimination complaints since 1993; 57 percent of those complaints were resolved early on. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 116 EEO complaints were filed against EPA in fiscal 1998. In fiscal 1999, the number dropped to 78. During the same period, the total number of EPA employees rose slightly, from 18,041 to 18,121.

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