Managing director and counsel have been idle for four months during misconduct probe.
A private employee rights counsel on Tuesday asked the Office of Personnel Management to intervene and end the four-month-old administrative leave of the managing director of the Chemical Safety Board, calling his twice-extended leave “an abuse of the civil service merit system.”
Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, wrote a complaint to OPM acting Director Beth Cobert on behalf of Chemical Safety Board executive Daniel Horowitz who, along with General Counsel Richard Loeb, have been on what originally was to be a 45-day leave while awaiting an outside investigator’s probe of possible misconduct.
Their forced leave stemmed from ongoing concerns by some in Congress and the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency that the two officials broke rules or laws under the stormy tenure of since-fired CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso.
According to the PEER complaint, the recent decision by newly installed Chairman Vanessa Sutherland to extend the administrative leave:
- Improperly politicizes the civil service as the leave arose under admitted pressure from congressional Republicans, with whom Ms. Sutherland has met several times during her tenure;
- Serves no legitimate agency purpose as the investigation is being conducted by contractors outside the CSB offices and his return would in no way impede it; and,
- Wastes scarce funds in a small agency that has already spent more than $100,000 on investigation contractors with more to come. In addition, the CSB executive staff is drawing full salary while “marooned” on administrative leave, the complaint said.
“This sets an extremely dangerous precedent of punishing a civil servant precisely because he followed the lawful orders of a presidential appointee who was his boss,” Ruch said in a release contending that Horowitz is being punished for the perceived missteps of Moure-Eraso who resigned in March.”
Horowitz has been under “bureaucratic house arrest – banned from entering CSB offices, blocked from agency email access, forbidden to speak with CSB employees or do any official business, yet he must be on call during working hours,” Ruch said. His first interview by the contractor was just weeks ago, the release said.
Horowitz confirmed to Government Executive that he is on administrative leave, but declined to comment further. Loeb did not respond to inquiries.
Chairman Sutherland in an interview with Government Executive said she has told the investigators to “wrap it up,” in a matter of “weeks, not months.” The board has “clearly been reluctant to discuss these cases because it might violate privacy and confidentiality, giving the person the impression that we’re talking about them,” she said. “They are free to describe how they feel and think, and we don’t want to diminish their ability to say what they want.”
Sutherland, who was sworn in this August, noted that the administrative leave predates her arrival, but that “maybe in retrospect having just two investigators is not the right amount,” given the thousands of pages of documents the two must examine to addresses accusations from both the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the EPA watchdog. The decision to outsource the probe was made because the available qualified in-house staff might have had conflicts of interest, Sutherland added.
The outside firm said it wanted to re-interview the employees to “make sure they have a credible final product,” Sutherland said. If she were among those on forced leave, she added, “I’d really be peeved. I will argue that not on my watch will we put people in limbo.”
OPM did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.