EPA neglects lagging criminal enforcement division

Environmental Protection Agency officials for the last several years have ignored pleas from enforcement staff and OMB to boost staffing and funding levels for the agency's criminal enforcement division, forcing the overburdened office to cut back on badly needed equipment and increasing the risk of serious injury to special agents operating in the field, EPA sources and internal documents show.

The financial crisis at EPA has become so severe, agency officials this spring ordered federal agents to surrender either their cell phones or two-way pagers, acknowledging in an e-mail while "personnel need BOTH to do their job effectively and, most importantly, safely," funding shortfalls have made the recall necessary.

Despite repeated requests for additional staff, modern equipment and other resources, the agency's top political brass has turned a blind eye to the program's struggles, assuring OMB, Congress and the public that it is meeting its statutory duties, even as the agency has compiled a backlog of thousands of uninvestigated cases over the last several years, CongressDaily found.

EPA political officials defend their handling of criminal enforcement, arguing the agency has maintained a strong enforcement record and has enough funding to complete its mission.

J.P. Suarez, chief of EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said in a statement that while EPA has taken on increased homeland security duties, "EPA's enforcement record is outstanding as we continue to aggressively enforce those who pollute. EPA fully supports the president's fiscal 2004 budget. It will be sufficient to continue EPA enforcement's high level of performance."

But EPA sources and internal documents show that the Office of Criminal Enforcement and Forensics Training, or OCEFT, has been unable to handle even those cases the agency has opened, with a backlog of more than 1,500 uncompleted investigations into allegations of environmental wrongdoing that pose an immediate threat to human health and the environment.

Sources also alleged that, during budget deliberations this winter, OMB officials pressed Suarez on why the agency had not sought an increase in criminal enforcement spending. Although Suarez and his deputy Phyllis Harris reportedly assured OMB officials that adequate funding existed, OMB indicated that OECA should find a way to move existing resources into the criminal division-a recommendation that EPA sources said has never been implemented.

"So much for the people's health and our environment being a 'top priority' of the Bush administration," one agency source charged.

Over the next several months, House and Senate lawmakers will complete work on EPA's fiscal 2004 budget, and the topic of federal spending to combat environmental crimes will almost certainly play a prominent role in those deliberations.

The Office of Criminal Enforcement and Forensics Training conducts all of EPA's criminal enforcement investigations under the nation's environmental laws. Over the last decade, the office has become increasingly involved in cases dealing with illegal drug manufacturers and organized crime because a number of either illegal or highly regulated substances are used in the refinement or manufacture of illicit drugs.

For instance, a number of criminal organizations have become major suppliers of illegal chlorofluorocarbons, which are used in creating forms of methamphetamine known as "crystal meth."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, EPA criminal agents also have become heavily involved in homeland security operations, as well as providing former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman with personal security.

Although the agency said it has 220 special agents working criminal cases, EPA sources said this number is misleading. Approximately 120 of those agents work in infrastructure and support positions, including computer analysts and forensic scientists.

Enforcement sources said at least 400 agents are needed if the agency is to carry out a minimum of investigations in the environmental, homeland security and personal detail arenas.

Budget requests for the past six fiscal years indicate federal agents at EPA have repeatedly sought new funding for a variety of infrastructure, training and staffing needs, all of which have been largely ignored by the agency's political leadership.

In the April 29 e-mail recalling agents' communications equipment, for instance, criminal enforcement officials noted that the agency "remains in possession of the information depicting our needs (millions of dollars) in this (and other) arenas," but had not yet acted on these requests.

Since at least fiscal 1998, EPA's Criminal Investigations Division has listed its database and computer systems as a "material need" under the Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act, which requires agencies to compile yearly lists of funding deficiencies. CID also has requested funding several times to upgrade its communications system from nonsecure analog radios to so-called law enforcement sensitive digital radios for use by agents, which at the end of fiscal 2004 will no longer be usable under federal security rules.

One agent explained that the digital radio system is key to the agency's criminal enforcement mission, because without the digital radios, EPA agents are unable to communicate with other law enforcement agents and risk their communications being intercepted by targets of their investigations.

Management resistance to increasing the criminal enforcement budget has also affected EPA's ability to conduct homeland security investigations. Since the fiscal 2002 budget process, CID repeatedly has urged EPA officials to seek 260 new employees and $40 million to implement a number of presidential directives on homeland security.

However, internal budget documents show the agency has consistently rejected these requests, significantly cutting the formal requests that are sent to OMB every year.

In its fiscal 2004 budget request to OMB, for instance, EPA ultimately asked for 62 new employees and $13.5 million in new funding.

Although funding skirmishes are not uncommon, EPA records show CID's workload has increased substantially over the last several years without a corresponding increase in funding.

For instance, in fiscal 2001, EPA initiated 482 criminal investigations. In fiscal 2002, 484 inquiries into environmental crimes were started, in addition to 190 homeland security investigations and 47 "protective services details" to protect Whitman from threats-including one which reportedly resulted in the arrest of a Turkish national plotting to attack the administrator.

At the same time, however, CID agents are faced with more than 1,500 open but incomplete cases in the office's backlog, and thousands of potential cases that have never been looked at by EPA because of a lack of resources.

One agent said that because EPA has not sufficiently modernized CID's record keeping systems, field agents keep paper logs of the leads they receive, making an exact total of uninvestigated cases difficult to determine.

Also, because criminal cases typically have a four-to-five-year statute of limitations bar on prosecution, many older cases are dropped from the rolls because of insufficient time.