Environmental Protection Agency officials on Wednesday touted progress on swiftly disciplining misbehaving employees, even as they endured the wrath of lawmakers who said their efforts were still falling short.
Acting EPA Deputy Administrator Stanley Meiburg told a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing that the agency’s new policy of holding biweekly meetings with the inspector general's office for information on investigations into employee misconduct has allowed it to move quickly to deal with problem workers. The strategy has reduced the need for “additional fact-finding” by EPA management to prepare for administrative actions upon the conclusion of the investigations, he said.
Patrick Sullivan, the assistant IG for investigations, told the committee the meetings represented a best practice for government to increase coordination and communication between agencies and auditors, and encouraged governmentwide adoption. He added that the committee’s chairman and ranking member -- Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Elijah Cummings, D-Md. -- have already reached out to the IG community to promote the idea.
While Cummings and several committee Democrats praised EPA for its progress and noted some of the more egregious examples of employee malfeasance occurred one or two years ago, Chaffetz and most Republicans focused on those high-profile cases and the lack of punishment for some of the workers involved.
EPA has a “systemic cultural problem,” Chaffetz said.
“The EPA is one of the most toxic places in the federal government to work," he said, “and if you don’t get rid of the toxicity of the employees there at the EPA, we’re doing a great disservice to this country.” He added most EPA employees are hard-working patriots, “but you have some bad apples at the EPA and they’re not being dealt with and they’re not being addressed.”
The chairman and several committee members highlighted repeated investigations revealing EPA employees watching pornography at work and other sexual misconduct. Chaffetz was especially taken aback when Meiburg told him the Merit Systems Protection Board reversed EPA’s attempted firing of a “convicted child molester.”
“How do you lose that case?” Chaffetz asked, with Meiburg informing him MSPB found the “basis for the removal was not sustained.” The chairman was further angered when Sullivan told him the employee eventually received a $55,000 cash settlement to separate from the agency. The committee chairman vowed to call in MSPB officials to answer how this decision was “in the best interest of America.”
“We’re not protecting American people and the taxpayers, we’re not protecting the employees who have to sit by this freak of a pervert,” Chaffetz said.
Meiburg added EPA does not have the authority to, as a policy, prevent registered sex offenders from interacting with the public -- as was the case with the enforcement employee who took the settlement -- and Chaffetz issued an open-ended assignment for someone on his committee to introduce legislation that would put such a provision in statute. The EPA official noted the problem was not unique to his agency.
Even Cummings, who largely commended EPA for showing progress, said there was room for improvement.
The ranking member said the bad apples accounted for “one-tenth of one percent” of the EPA workforce, but that “we can do better.”
Republicans including Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., consistently called for more heads to roll. Mulvaney requested the dismissal of “folks who like to hug trees” and therefore overreach in their responsibilities. But not everyone was sure that was the best course of action.
“I don’t think firing a bunch people is necessarily the sign of a good manager,” said Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands. “It may be the sign of a bad manager.”
Sullivan decried his shrinking workforce, though he cited budget shortfalls as the culprit for the reductions. He said the IG’s staff has lost 20 percent of its employees over the last five years, and his office specifically has shed 15-20 agents. The IG’s investigative team has a backlog of 90 misconduct cases.
“I simply don’t have enough agents to expeditiously investigate everything on my plate,” Sullivan said.