When EPA officials began having doubts in 2012 about John Beale — a top adviser who bizarrely claimed he was missing work because he was on secret CIA spy missions — they didn't go to the agency's inspector general for an investigation.
Instead, they went to the Environmental Protection Agency's little-known office of homeland security to check out Beale's story.
Beale's ruse eventually unraveled, but questions have emerged in the wake of his time and attendance fraud case about the role of the EPA's homeland security operation.
The office has no law enforcement or investigative authority, according to a recent memo from the EPA inspector general.
Still, the office has its own special agent and intelligence adviser, according to the EPA website. EPA officials have suggested that the office might have powers to investigate national security matters inside the agency that the inspector general does not.
The EPA also made its homeland security office the point of contact with the FBI on some EPA investigations. The inspector general's office says the arrangement infringes on its own turf.
Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are asking about the homeland security office's role, particularly in light of complaints from EPA and other agency inspectors general that they are facing problems with oversight.
EPA officials declined to discuss questions about the office.
A House oversight panel will hear testimony Wednesday from an investigator at the EPA inspector general's office who said she was assaulted when she tried to ask questions last fall at the homeland security office.
Christie Todd Whitman, who as EPA administrator in 2003 created the homeland security office, said she never intended for it to be exempt from oversight by the agency's inspector general. One of her top appointees said the office was supposed to be a "policy shop," not a police agency.
"Gov. Whitman did not intend for the office to be held to a different standard than the rest of the agency, and thus subject to the IG," said Heather Grizzle, spokeswoman for Ms. Whitman, a Republican who was in office from 2001 to 2003 and previously served as New Jersey governor.
Bob Bostock, who served as assistant to the administrator for homeland security at EPA under Ms. Whitman, said the office was meant to be for policy and coordination.
He said the office was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks to avoid overlap and have clear lines of accountability in coordinating with other agencies on homeland security issues.
"I suspect that in the 10-plus years, it's probably grown beyond what we envisioned," he said.
Indeed, records unearthed during an investigation by Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, show that the homeland security office went far beyond policy when an EPA attorney gave it the task of digging into Beale's story in November 2012.
However, the inspector general's office said the EPA didn't tell it about Beale until February 2013, records show.
An intelligence officer at the homeland security office, Steve Williams, stated in a sworn statement obtained by The Washington Times that he met with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to discuss Beale in December 2012. He also said he and another official in the office contacted the CIA about Beale.
After Beale's fraud — which spanned Republican and Democratic administrations — became public, the inspector general's office began asking questions at the EPA's homeland security office.
Last fall, one of the inspector general's special agents, Elisabeth Heller Drake, stopped by on what she thought would be a routine visit to advise an employee not to discuss an ongoing investigation involving the office, according to prepared testimony she submitted to Congress.
Instead, she wrote, EPA homeland security officials refused to cooperate and Mr. Williams berated her so much that she filed an assault complaint. An affidavit was prepared for Mr. Williams' arrest on a misdemeanor charge, but the U.S. attorney's office in Washington declined to file charges.
"The EPA routinely assists our Office of Inspector General on their important work rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse at the agency," EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson wrote in an email to The Times.
"At the suggestion of the Office of the Inspector General, the EPA sought the assistance of an outside inspector general's office to conduct an administrative investigation into the incident that occurred on October 24, 2013, and are awaiting the results of that investigation."
Days after the incident, Ms. McCarthy requested that the inspector general's office temporarily halt its investigation into the homeland security office. As the agency and its watchdog traded memos in what amounted to a turf dispute, the EPA's deputy, Bob Perciasepe, argued that the inspector general's statutory authority didn't explicitly address its role in national security matters.
He said the EPA had a long-standing policy of relying on its homeland security office for that function, but EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins said the arrangement has kept his office from investigating some misconduct.
Meanwhile, other inspector general offices have faced their own problems accessing agency records and interviews during investigations and audits.
A group of House and Senate lawmakers Monday called on the Peace Corps to turn over records to its inspector general, Kathy Buller, who testified in January about difficulty obtaining records as part of a review into training programs and sexual assault policies.
In January, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz told a House oversight panel that inspector generals' offices shouldn't need permission or authorization from agency heads for access to agency records and that inspector general colleagues at other agencies "have had similar issues."
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