- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy personally intervened to delay an inspector general’s investigation into the agency’s homeland security division, records show.

Ms. McCarthy called for the inspector general to “temporarily halt” its probe into the office last fall days after an investigator reported threatening behavior from an official inside the homeland security office, documents show.

The inspector general’s special agent, Elisabeth Heller Drake, tried to talk to an EPA official as part of an investigation into the homeland security office. During the visit, another official in the office “approached the agent in an aggressive manner and began yelling at the agent,” according to an affidavit reviewed by The Washington Times.

The official, identified in documents reviewed by The Times as senior EPA analyst Steve Williams, “was in the agent’s face and began pointing within inches of her face and chest forcing the complainant to move back,” according to the affidavit.

The Federal Protective Service, which oversees federal buildings, investigated the incident and sent findings supporting a misdemeanor assault charge to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment, saying the office typically doesn’t confirm or deny investigations.

Efforts to reach Mr. Williams were unsuccessful, and he did not return email inquiries from The Times. Ms. Drake referred questions to an attorney, David Schleicher.

“We look forward to continuing to work with EPA and Congress in seeking a resolution of these difficult issues,” Mr. Schleicher wrote in an email.

Ms. McCarthy referred to “an apparent confrontation” days later in an October letter that she sent to Inspector General Arthur Elkins and to Juan Reyes, the EPA’s acting associate administrator.

“These incidents are unfortunately indicative of the growing discord, distrust and conflict between members of your respective offices,” Ms. McCarthy wrote.

Ms. McCarthy said she hadn’t received a clear explanation for the inspector general’s review or methodology, but noted that the inspector general had raised questions about the homeland security office’s role in national security investigations.

She said she wanted her general counsel to “lead a dialogue between the two of you to resolve those questions,” according to the letter. Meanwhile, she said, “I request that the OIG temporarily halt its review until the process I have described is complete.”

Most inspector general offices, including the one for the EPA, are independent entities under federal law, and requests from agencies on the handling of specific inspector general investigations are uncommon.

“It’s highly unusual for an administrator or director of a Cabinet-level department to request an IG stop an investigation,” said Eric Feldman, who served as inspector general of the National Reconnaissance Office from 2003 to 2009. “That never ends well.”

It’s unclear what became of the underlying investigation that brought Ms. Drake into the EPA’s homeland security office, but the EPA inspector general’s office and the department overall have made no secret about their disagreement on whether the inspector general has the legal right to investigate the office.

The EPA inspector general has recused itself from the investigation into Ms. Drake’s complaint, and the Pentagon’s inspector general office is investigating.

Mr. Elkins first disclosed Ms. McCarthy’s request to temporarily halt the investigation when questioned by Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, about whether Ms. McCarthy had ever told the inspector general to take a particular course of action in an investigation.

Mr. Vitter, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, started investigating EPA failures after John Beale — once the agency’s highest-paid employee — was sent to federal prison last year.

Beale pleaded guilty to duping his superiors into thinking he was working part time for the CIA as a spy, when he was at home collecting paychecks and doing no work.

Asked by Mr. Vitter of any EPA officials “intimidating or otherwise taking actions to prevent the OIG from conducting investigations,” Mr. Elkins replied, “Yes.”

“Over the past 12 months there have been several EPA officials who have taken action to prevent [the office of investigations] from conducting investigations or who have attempted to obstruct investigations through intimidation,” the inspector general replied.

EPA officials disagreed.

Bob Perciasepe, the EPA’s deputy administrator, accused Mr. Elkins of omitting important context in response to Mr. Vitter’s “narrowly crafted” questions.

EPA officials declined to comment, referring to a copy of Mr. Perciasepe’s letter when asked about the inspector general dispute and subsequent Federal Protective Service investigation.

Mr. Perciasepe said the inspector general detailed a “few very isolated events” between the watchdog office and EPA employees.

He said the events should be viewed in the context of a “difficult disagreement” between the EPA and the inspector general over Mr. Elkins‘ office’s authority to investigate national security matters at the agency.

Mr. Perciasepe said the inspector general’s statutory authority didn’t explicitly address the role of the office in national security matters. While the inspector general has maintained it has primary authority to investigate national security matters, the agency has a long-standing practice of using its office of homeland security and an agency agreement with the FBI, he wrote.

Mr. Perciasepe also said the EPA asked for an independent third-party review after the Federal Protective Service concluded its investigation into “the incident.”

In a response, Mr. Elkins said his office is responsible for investigating misconduct and fraud throughout the EPA.

He said the homeland security office, however, is a “non-statutory creation of EPA” reporting to the administrator that lacks investigative and law enforcement authority. He also said the office hadn’t communicated with the inspector general’s office on a Secret Service report summarizing a threat against the EPA and the president in August.

“Where employee misconduct or another OIG-covered issue is present, regardless of whether or not national security is involved, the OIG must be able to conduct its work without interference,” he wrote, adding that the memo would be his last public comment on the matter.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide