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“The rest of us are just the supporting cast,” he said.

One employee at the meeting raised questions about communicating with the EPA in light of media accounts surrounding Mr. Tulou’s firing, but was interrupted by Mr. Lew.

“You ever heard the line ‘Timing in life is everything,’ you ever heard of that line?” Mr. Lew asked.

“Sure,” the employee said.

“This is not about not communicating. We’re not talking about censoring. It’s the timing of some of those communications,” Mr. Lew said, adding that malice might not have been behind what he said was one problematic communication by DDOE to EPA.

“Obviously, there’s a very close relationship with EPA,” Mr. Lew said, referring to what he called an incestuous relationship between federal and city environmental agencies. Through a spokesman, he declined to elaborate.

Another employee at the gathering questioned why all the workers were told to travel to city offices on Fourth Street rather than Mr. Lew coming to the DDOE headquarters, likening the trip to a “march of shame” for DDOE staffers.

“There was no intent to demoralize you,” Mr. Lew replied, saying he wasn’t going to pay rent for space in the convention center. “In fact, I’m trying to boost the morale, not bring you down further.”