- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2001

A row over oversight of the botched clean up of 24 Superfund waste sites has pitted Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christine Todd Whitman in a bitter battle with the agency's national ombudsman, Robert J. Martin. According to Mr. Martin's defenders, a decision by Mrs. Whitman to virtually dismantle his office may be related to his oversight responsibilities for the clean up of two waste sites where, they say, Mrs. Whitman's husband has substantial financial interests.

"Basically it's a fight to the death," a senior EPA official told me. "It's either him or her there is no third way."

On Nov. 27, Mrs. Whitman announced that she planned to send Mr. Martin to the EPA's inspector general's (IG) office and transfer control of his 24 cases to the agency's inspector general. The move, she said, "will give the ombudsman more independence and the impartiality necessary to conduct credible inquiries."

That same day, Mr. Martin sent the administrator a blistering letter in which he charged that her surprise move had the effect of "dissolving the national ombudsman function at EPA." Mr. Martin's defenders point out that the Whitman decision, which is expected to take effect Jan. 1, actually blindsided Mr. Martin and served to undercut his position even before he moved to the IG's office.

In the meantime, EPA officials prohibited Mr. Martin and his chief investigator, Hugh Kaufman, from working on ombudsman cases. The bureaucrats cited privacy laws as the reason that they could not explain the rationale for that decision, as they had done in an earlier effort to pull Mr. Kaufman from oversight of the clean up of a waste site at the Marjol Battery Site at Throop, Pa. (In that case, the state's two senators, Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, reviewed Mr. Kaufman's personnel file at his request and wrote to Mrs. Whitman saying that nothing was found in that file that should prohibit him from performing his duties with the ombudsman's office.)

Senior EPA officials have long been gunning for Mr. Martin, whose relative independence has infuriated them even as it has provided a small measure of citizen comfort with an agency frequently criticized as a bureaucratic "cesspool." During the Clinton administration the ombudsman several times incurred the wrath of the EPA political leadership, angered by his public interest stands.

Mr. Kaufman and others point to two recent cases handled by Mr. Martin's office as meriting further examination of possible conflict-of-interest problems for the Whitman family. The administrator's husband, John, is the managing partner of a venture capital firm controlled by Citigroup and has held several posts at Citicorp, a Citigroup subsidiary. In her financial disclosure form, Mrs. Whitman lists Citigroup stock owned by her husband as being worth between $100,000 and $250,000.

The global financial behemoth recently entered into an agreement to pay just one-fifth of the $35 million needed to clear up its Shattuck Superfund site in Colorado. Mr. Kaufman, who investigated the original botched cleanup for the ombudsman's office, told the Denver Post that the favorable settlement for Citigroup was "chump change compared to what it is going to cost to do it right," with estimates running as high as $100 million.

In addition, a Citigroup financial partner is also responsible for the clean up at the lead-contaminated Marjol site in Pennsylvania. In a report issued in October, Mr. Martin documented his charges that the EPA IG had attempted to obstruct his investigation. He also claimed that the EPA failed to properly define the scope of the contamination and had never adequately determined possible environmental poisoning by elements other than lead. An EPA spokesperson told the Scranton Times Tribune that Mrs. Whitman had not recused herself from that case because, she said, most decisions on cleanups are not made by the agency administrator, a claim Mr. Martin's defenders vigorously dispute.

In September, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report detailing the fact that the EPA ombudsman did not have sufficient independence, and documented the fact that federal ombudsman are independent and report directly to the head of their agency. Mr. Martin and his advocates say that the plan to bury him at a still uncreated IG office of congressional and public liaison office was little more than a hostile takeover by an entity the IG's office reflective of EPA's highly-politicized environment.

Rep. Michael Bilrakis is the sponsor of pending legislation that would give the ombudsman real independence. In a Dec. 7 letter to Mrs. Whitman, Mr. Bilrakis and 14 other members of Congress bluntly told her that the decision to relocate the ombudsman from the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) to the IG "will not create sufficient independence for the Ombudsman to function effectively."

Congress says it plans hearings early next year on ways to improve the ombudsman's independence, as recommended by the GAO. In a statement to The Washington Times just before Congress adjourned for the Christmas holiday, Mr. Bilrakis said, "Several members of Congress have made clear to Administrator Whitman the need to withhold implementation of this decision pending hearings in the House of Representatives. I hope that she reconsiders her decision to relocate the Ombudsman in January 2002."

Mrs. Whitman's apparent decision to press ahead with the proposed reorganization in early January would pre-empt the possibility of real oversight of the important function ably carried on by Mr. Martin. It would also serve as a fait accompli for sealing a sweetheart deal for Citigroup Inc., which employs Mrs. Whitman's husband.

Martin Edwin Andersen is media director for the Government Accountability Project, a D.C.-based citizens' watchdog organization.

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