Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy told members of Congress at a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday that she has never tried to obstruct oversight of her agency.
Preemptive vetoes of a mining project in Alaska, employees who were watching porn during work and an official who pretended to be a CIA agent have led both Congress and an independent watchdog to accuse the EPA of blocking investigations into wrongdoing.
"Cooperation with our overseers is not just EPA's policy, but is, and has always been, part of EPA's culture," Ms. McCarthy told the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform.
But Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and the panel chairman, threatened to hold Ms. McCarthy in contempt of Congress if she does not turn over several documents he requested.
"The subpoena calls for you to deliver the documents. You have not done so," Mr. Issa said. "A troubling trend has emerged: a lack of overall supervision and accountability for those employees who cheat the taxpayers."
The EPA's independent internal watchdog, the Inspector General, likewise has said its investigative efforts have been blocked by the EPA's Office of Homeland Security.
In May, an IG official said the office was acting like a "rogue law enforcement organization" and that it has "hamstrung" oversight efforts by interfering with investigations.
But Democrats at the hearing said that the Republican-led committee was more interested in trying to stop EPA regulation.
"It does not serve the public to interfere with the EPA in its performance of this vital, important and popular duty," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who spoke at the hearing.
And the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, said the EPA has turned over more than 200,000 documents to the committee since 2011 but that lawmakers would continue to "focus on what appears to be an effort to block EPA at every turn and prevent the agency from getting anything done."
The House hearing follows a multimonth investigation by Senate Republicans into problems at the EPA.
"These management failures have facilitated waste of millions and millions of taxpayers' dollars and have undermined congressional oversight," Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, told the House panel.
Much of the focus has been on the EPA's personnel policies after a top official, John Beale, received nearly $1 million in pay while doing little work by pretending he was secretly a CIA agent. He's currently serving 32 months in prison.
Likewise, several EPA employees were found to be watching, as Mr. Issa put it, "mind-boggling amounts of pornography while in the office," sometimes as much as six hours a day.
Lawmakers said they want answers into how the employee misconduct was able to continue for years before it was caught.
"The more we learn about the internal workings of the EPA, the more it needs oversight," Mr. Issa said, noting he is concerned the EPA will make the public lose confidence in the agency the same way scandals at the IRS did.
For example, Mr. Beale is still eligible to receive federal retirement pay, and some of the porn-viewing employees haven't been fired and are still receiving their salaries.
Ms. McCarthy said she is following the deliberative administrative process she must go through surrounding all employee matters but that EPA officials are working to change both situations and have taxpayer money returned.
"When there's a bad apple there, it's coming out," she said. "It's coming out as quickly as I can get it."
The employees should be disciplined or fired, said Gerald E. Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, but argued that it's disingenuous to try to portray this as a problem specific to the EPA. Mr. Connolly pointed to the example of a Republican chief of staff who resigned after his ex-girlfriend, a former porn star, posted pictures of his genitals on the Internet.
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