- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2000

An investigator critical of federal pollution-cleanup policies was relieved of his duties for embarrassing the Clinton administration, say the official and Capitol Hill lawmakers.

As the only investigator in the Ombudsman Office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Hugh Kaufman was the chief critic inside his own agency and exposed numerous cover-ups prior to his dismissal last week.

In Colorado, Mr. Kaufman embarrassed the agency and forced it to clean up its radioactive-waste burial site in a Denver neighborhood. He was also critical of agency actions in Florida, Idaho and Pennsylvania.

And when it comes to dealing with Congress, Mr. Kaufman said the agency "is not dealing the cards off the top of the deck."

"Basically, we are supposed to [be] advocates of the truth, but the agency has been much too harsh in some cases, and taken a dive in others," Mr. Kaufman said.

Tim Fields, the EPA official who initially hired Mr. Kaufman, then reassigned him to an analyst's job, said the decision was based on performance, not politics.

"We have a strong commitment to the national ombudsman and have concluded Mr. Kaufman no longer fits in the support of that national function," Mr. Fields said.

He said the EPA would continue to provide all the support necessary to the ombudsman's office.

Several members of Congress have criticized Mr. Kaufman's reassignment, claiming it is political retaliation, and have called on the Clinton administration and the incoming Bush administration to reinstate Mr. Kaufman.

"I am furious," said Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican.

"They got embarrassed publicly and I think they were out to get him," Mr. Allard said.

Mr. Kaufman discovered that an EPA radioactive burial site in Overland Park, Colo., was leaking into the Platte River. The agency initially denied the leak, but after secret documents were exposed, agreed to move the burial site, said a spokesman for Mr. Allard.

Mr. Kaufman also criticized a similar cleanup plan of radioactive and toxic waste in Tarpon Springs, Fla. The EPA has since put a hold on those plans.

Mr. Kaufman said the agency "played fast and loose with the truth."

"They demonstrated firsthand you cannot trust the EPA's entrenched bureaucracy," he said.

Rep. Michael Bilirakis, Florida Republican, has written to President-elect George W. Bush asking that the decision be rescinded.

"Because the national ombudsman function at the EPA has been so successful in resolving problems with the EPA bureaucracy at the request of members of Congress, we request that, as soon as possible, you employ your good office to restore and support the national ombudsman and his staff," Mr. Bilirakis said.

"More specifically, we look to your administration to undo the damage that is being initiated by the Clinton political appointees in the immediate wake after Vice President [Al] Gore's concession speech," he said.

Mr. Kaufman was informed of his transfer less than 24 hours after Mr. Gore's Dec. 13 speech. Lawmakers and Mr. Kaufman note the timing is curious and reinforces their theory that the actions were politically motivated.

"The Democrats want to get a little revenge before they leave," Mr. Kaufman said.

Sen. Michael D. Crapo, Idaho Republican, said Mr. Kaufman's sudden transfer "renews my concern that EPA is attempting to weaken the ombudsman's office. The independent function of the ombudsman's office is vital."

Mr. Crapo's office released an Oct. 18 letter written to him from the agency indicating that Mr. Kaufman's work was satisfactory.

Michael H. Shapiro, principal deputy assistant administrator, told Mr. Crapo he was "pleased to hear you and the community are satisfied with the national ombudsman's involvement" in an Idaho Superfund site.

"We believe the ombudsman function is a very important one for the agency and the public," Mr. Shapiro said.

Mr. Kaufman said he received top performance ratings in his three years in the office, as well as two cash awards of $1,000 each for his work.

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