- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2014

The head of the federal U.S. Chemical Safety Board abused his position, using his power to intimidate opponents and promote friends — leaving the agency with few employees and a backlog of investigations, lawmakers said during an oversight hearing Thursday.

The CSB is “an agency in crisis, unable to properly function and serve its mission because of poor leadership and management,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican.

The House watchdog panel was looking into reports that agency Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, nominated by President Obama in 2010, intimidated and retaliated against whistleblowers who reported problems at the CSB, which led to an exodus of employees, congressional records show.

With multiple vacancies and continuing mismanagement, the agency’s main mission — investigating hazardous chemical accidents — started to suffer, with some investigations taking as long as four or five years, lawmakers said.

A report by Republican leaders on the committee called for “a change in leadership” that would “allow this struggling agency to regain focus on safety issues and provide necessary guidance to industry.”

Documents from the committee as well as the Environmental Protection Agency inspector general allege that CSB General Counsel Richard C. Loeb learned the names of people who had reported about mismanagement at the CSB. He turned that information over to Mr. Moure-Eraso, who retaliated against the whistleblowers while promoting Mr. Loeb.

The EPA inspector general, investigating the accusations, said that CSB officials have continued to stonewall attempts to uncover the truth and are withholding documents from inspectors. This prompted the inspector general to send a “seven-day letter” to Mr. Moure-Eraso — so called because the agency leader has a week to respond.

Mr. Issa called the unusual step of sending seven-day letters — one of the most serious actions an inspector general can take — “a 911 call to this committee, and as a result we take them very seriously.” He noted the House Oversight Committee had only received two seven-day letters in his entire time serving on the committee.

Mr. Moure-Eraso maintained that he did nothing wrong, and said he was “unaware of any CSB employee who may have lost their job, grade or any pay, as a result of complaints.”

Mr. Issa threatened to issue congressional subpoenas unless the CSB turns over all the documents the inspector general has requested, and that he would hold Mr. Moure-Eraso in contempt if they were not turned over within a week.

Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said that investigators must get to the bottom of the accusations of wrongdoing, and that Congress must work to fix the agency.

“It is critical that the CSB function properly,” he said. “This agency is responsible for investigating tragic accidents and making recommendations to protect the safety of workers and the public.”

Former agency board member Beth Rosenberg said that other leaders at the CSB have been sidelined as Mr. Moure-Eraso drew more power to himself and ignored his colleagues’ opinions. Disagreement, she said, was viewed as disloyal.

“The agency is broken, it needs to be rebuilt,” Ms. Rosenberg said, who resigned after only 17 months at the CSB, citing what she described as the toxic work environment and lack of progress on investigations.

The committee’s report noted that there are currently only two people serving on the leadership board, one of whom is Mr. Moure-Eraso, and that the other three spaces were vacant.

Mr. Moure-Eraso called the accusations of usurping power “a misunderstanding … of how government agencies function.”

“There are lines of responsibility and there are lines of authority,” he said.

But after accusations arose that Mr. Moure-Eraso had ordered board members to permanently declare their positions on a topic before public debate, Mr. Issa responded that leaders are “given the title of ‘chair,’ but not ‘dictator.’”

Ms. Rosenberg said that fear of retaliation made many employees fearful of offering differing opinions or dissenting, and that workers became increasingly unwilling to discuss issues with her at work.

“I had many meetings in the ladies’ room,” she said.

“I have few,” Mr. Issa quipped, adding that it was worrying that the work environment at the agency was causing so many qualified chemical accident investigators to leave.

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