How a Political Appointee Gets Fired in Washington
The ex-chairman of the Chemical Safety Board says he was unfairly maligned.
Rafael Moure-Eraso didn’t see it coming. Around March 18, the embattled chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board learned from one of his staff that CNN News was requesting comment on word that the White House would be asking for his resignation.
“This was a complete surprise to me since the White House has never discussed the resignation issue with me,” the Colombian-born chemical engineer told Government Executive in early June as he prepared to move back to emeritus status at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. “I immediately called the White House to ask about how to respond to the CNN call. They confirmed that yes, they had asked for my resignation and that they have planned to let me know before it became public.”
His White House contact denied that the president’s team leaked the information to the news media and speculated that the tip came from Congress, which told him “that the information was transmitted first to Congress before I was informed,” he said. The ax finally fell on March 26, with just three months left in his five-year term.
Moure-Eraso has had no easy time of it since he left the K Street Northwest building that houses the independent agency that investigates industrial accidents and critiques regulatory regimes.
Months of criticism from lawmakers of both parties and from past board members attacking his “autocratic” management, delayed investigations of deadly accidents, controversies over use of private email, document demands from an inspector general and the Office of Special Counsel over whistleblowers still sting.
Moure-Eraso, along with CSB’s still-serving Managing Director Daniel Horowitz, “created a toxic work environment that resulted in the departure of at least nine experienced employees from the CSB,” read a June 19, 2014, report from the Republican chairmen of two House panels. Moure-Eraso points out that the joint report was not signed by Democrats, though in March, seven House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Democrats joined Republicans in a letter calling for his resignation.
The five-seat Chemical Safety Board is now down to three members, with Mark Griffon’s term due to end on June 24. President Obama’s nomination for Moure-Eraso’s successor, Vanessa Allen Sutherland, the chief counsel at the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, had a hearing in April at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. But there’s no word yet on a committee or floor confirmation vote for a term supposed to begin this month. The newly named interim chairman is Rick Engler.
Just before Moure-Eraso cleaned out his desk in April, he wrote a “final report” giving his view on the Chemical Safety Board’s accomplishments under his truncated five-year tenure. It was sent to the White House, the Office of Personnel Management, the CSB Board and its staff of 40, but was never officially published.
Among the agency’s important deeds, in his view, are having delivered 700 new chemical workplace safety recommendations to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, state regulators, industry organizations, unions, and companies—with a 76 percent rate of acceptable responses by recipients.
He cites a strategic plan for 2011-16 that includes “outcome-based performance measures for each strategic goal.” He also lauds the reassertion of the Chemical Safety Board’s authority by a U.S. Appeals Court in March 2015, authority that had been challenged by Transocean, operator of the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo well that blew out in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, resulting in the largest accidental oil spill in history.
And during his tenure, the CSB reorganized its governance structure, to create “clear lines of authority,” creating a position of managing director, reorganizing the Office of General Counsel and creating contracting officer positions.
“In summary, the Chemical Safety Board has had an extremely productive five-year period,” he wrote, “completing major accident investigations with recommendations adopted or in the course of being adopted, that will affect the safety of workers and communities for decades.”
In a little-noticed interview in late April, Moure-Erase answered questions for the Duke University Washington program posed by Lori Snyder Bennear, associate professor of environmental economics and policy. Resistance to his management reforms, he said then, was because “some board members disagreed with the way the agency was moving, but if their picture of chaos and mismanagement were true, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish” what the agency did, he said.
Asked whether he was an “autocrat or a hard-working immigrant,” he said, “The image of grabbing power is a red herring. The agency I came into was in trouble, and there were no lines of authority. Even OPM says there has to be a head of an agency.”
Moure-Eraso acknowledged that a language barrier might have contributed to his tensions with Congress. “My communicating skills are more scientific and technical,” he told Government Executive. “I was taken aback by questions not related to the investigative practices of the CSB. The hearing seemed to focus on political questions designed to have the agency appear in the most negative light possible. I recognize that as a non-native English speaker I am not as skillful responding to non-technical questions.”
Moure-Eraso expected to be questioned on technical and scientific issues, and policy. “I was surprised by the hostility and unkindness of Congress, I was prepared to explain the scientific nature of our recommendations and also why it takes substantially more time to complete a CSB root cause investigation than a six-month compliance inspection of other federal law enforcement agencies. I learned very fast that the real objective of the hearing was not to discuss prevention of major chemical accidents.”
Industry representatives such as the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council “and their friendly Congressmen” also opposed him, he said. “The chemical and petrochemical industry has consistently opposed any improving of the old regulations on Process Safety Management.”
He had hoped hearings would focus on updating workplace safety regulations, but instead, they focused on whistleblower complaints that, he said, have not been upheld after a four-year investigation of the Office of Special Counsel and the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general. Those entities investigated hiring practices, delayed investigations and use of private email for official business. “No wrongdoing on personnel matters was ever found,” said Moure-Eraso. “Obfuscation and innuendo succeeded in [making] the agency look in disarray.”