- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2014

Officials at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are deliberately trying to block an investigation into whether agency leaders mistreated whistleblowers, according to accusations in congressional testimony obtained by The Washington Times.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, has been attempting to investigate whether a “high-level” official in the independent Office of Special Counsel leaked the names of whistleblowers who had reported on abuses and mismanagement at the board.

But the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) “has provided no records” of communication and “is preventing the EPA OIG from conducting a complete investigation,” said Inspector General Arthur Elkins in prepared testimony before Congress.

Upon learning that CSB leaders had hired a private attorney to defend themselves and were possibly using non-government e-mail accounts to communicate surreptitiously, the EPA IG requested the board turn over all communications pertaining to the whistleblower controversy.

The CSB has refused, citing attorney-client privilege.

But Mr. Elkins argued that the law does not prevent the IG’s office from investigating anything pertaining to federal agencies, and that investigators are suppose to be granted “access to all records without qualification.”

“When the CSB tells the OIG charged with such responsibility that it will not comply with the OIG’s request for information for reasons of its own invention, it is disregarding the law that Congress wrote for the protection of taxpayers that Congress intended,” Mr. Elkins said.

“When an OIG is faced with obstruction and obfuscation by an agency, inefficiency thrives unchecked, and potential wrongdoing evades both notice and consequences,” he continued.

Mr. Elkins’ is expected to make the charges Thursday at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that is looking into whether the CSB mistreated whistleblowers who reported on problems at the agency.

There have been some reports of incompetence and mismanagement at Chemical Safety Board. Charged with investigating serious chemical mishaps in the U.S., federal inspectors estimate that the board only actually looks at 2 percent of all accidents.

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso extolled his agency’s accomplishments, including investigation into the 2013 West Fertilizer Company plant explosion in Texas.

“We are a very small agency charged with a huge mission of investigating far more accidents than we have the resources to tackle,” he said.

Mr. Moure-Eraso also said the agency has not retaliated against whistleblowers who have come forward.

“I am unaware of any CSB employee who may have lost their job, grade or any pay, as a result of complaints made to the Office of Special Counsel,” he said.

But a former board member disagreed, stating that those who argued with senior leadership were “marginalized and vilified.”

“Criticism is not welcome and staff fear retaliation,” said Beth Rosenberg, who resigned from the board in May after only serving 17 months.

Some employees were so scared to discuss problems that they made plans to meet outside of work, Ms. Rosenberg said.

Mark Griffon, a current board member, said employee surveys have show most are dissatisfied with their jobs and would not recommend CSB as a good place to work.

The chairman, Mr. Moure-Eraso, has been drawing more control to himself while eroding the rest of the board’s role such as excluding them from “key policy decisions,” said Mr. Griffon, who will not be present at the committee hearing but submitted written testimony to Congress.

Both board members, Ms. Rosenberg and Mr. Griffon, pointed to a January decision to postpone oil refinery regulation until additional questions could be answered by experts.

They say the chairman dismissed the decision and said in an e-mail that those supporting the delay were “siding with the worst and most unfair critics of the CSB.”

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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