- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2015

There are many reasons why an employer might sever ties with one of its employees, but apparently at the Environmental Protection Agency, breaking the law is not one of them.

In fact, drug and child-sex offenders received paid administrative leave in two cases of the agency’s use of administrative leave, which an audit called “unacceptable” and cost taxpayers over $1 million.

“Our analysis shows that the EPA’s use of administrative leave appears disproportionate when compared to U.S. Office of Personnel Management guidance related to unacceptable performance and misconduct,” the EPA’s inspector general wrote in an audit released Monday.

Auditors reviewed eight cases where employees received extended amounts of paid leave since 2010. The employees charged 20,926 hours of leave totaling $1,096,868. The cases were first identified by a Government Accountability Office investigation last year.

Investigators blasted the EPA for abusing administrative leave and giving employees paid time off for lengthy periods.

“According to Office of Personnel Management guidance, administrative leave should generally be limited to situations involving brief absences and not be used for an extended period of time. The cases reviewed involved administrative leave of 4 months or more for all but one of the employees included in the audit,” investigators wrote in the report.

“We do not consider 4 months or more to be a brief absence,” investigators wrote.

The report is also raising eyebrows among spending watchdogs who are fed up with the EPA’s abuse of taxpayer dollars.

“The EPA routinely shuts down productive businesses that create jobs. Now we come to find out that they spend $1 million on vacations for sexual predators and potheads working for them. They are out of control,” said Ryan Ellis, tax policy director at Americans for Tax Reform.

For using Americans’ tax dollars to pay for extended vacations for convicted criminals and other misbehaving employees who would have otherwise been fired, the EPA wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times highlighting the most egregious examples of federal waste, fraud and abuse.

“Once again, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has demonstrated a complete disregard for the rules, and the taxpayers are footing the bill by stretching the administrative leave rules beyond recognition,” said Richard Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government.

One of the employees examined in the audit confessed to “knowingly and intentionally engaging in sexual conduct with a child younger than 17 years,” in the 1990s. The same employee in August 2013 received paid administrative leave after being arrested on a probation violation.

The employee was put on 300 hours of paid leave before being removed from the agency five months later. The worker was then rehired from September 2014 to January 2015, with “no documentation” in their disciplinary action file, according to the report.

Another employee was placed on administrative leave for seven months after being arrested for marijuana possession. The EPA had proposed an indefinite suspension for that employee but ultimately signed a separation agreement and kept that employee on the payroll through November 2014. Once the leave period ended, the employee resigned.

“In the Obama administration’s EPA, a clear message has been sent that if you get in trouble with the law, you will continue getting paid your salary without the bother of showing up to earn it due to this abuse of the administrative leave system,” Mr. Manning said. “Given that this type of personnel issue continues to plague McCarthy, it is clear that she is not up to the basic managerial tasks of her position and should be replaced.”

A different employee was placed on administrative leave for seven and a half months before being fired for sending a “hostile email” and making inappropriate statements that “caused anxiety and disruption in the workplace,” the report states.

The employee’s union contested the firing, which began four years of arbitration that ultimately resulted in the employee being removed a second time, but not before receiving 1,496 hours of back pay.

The EPA said it is “in the process of updating its leave administration policy” to include provisions that require justification for any paid leave request lasting longer than 10 cumulative workdays within 26 pay periods.

In many cases it took the EPA months to fire employees who broke the law or engaged in misconduct, continuing to give them paid leave in the meantime.

Chris Edwards, a budget analyst at the Cato Institute, said that much of the federal government’s wasteful spending stems from an inability to fire poor workers.

“If private sector workers misbehaved the way that some EPA workers have been, they would be quickly dismissed. Just 0.5 percent of federal workers a year get fired for any reason, including poor performance and misconduct. That rate is just one-sixth the firing rate in the private sector,” Mr. Edwards said.

“The issue is not just about fairness for taxpayers, but also fairness for hardworking federal employees,” he added. “If the federal government did a better job at firing bad workers, it would cut the waste on administrative leave and boost overall workforce morale and productivity.”

According to the report, the EPA keeps little documentation for employees who receive administrative leave because agency guidance does not have policies requiring documentation to support the basis for providing extended paid leave.

“The case details in the report are as alarming as the overall findings in the report itself. When it takes many months, and sometimes even a few years, to remove a bad employee for good cause, it’s no wonder that conscientious people inside and outside of the bureaucracy are frustrated,” said Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union. “It’s also important to remember that taxpayers are often on the hook for much more than excessive or undocumented administrative leave. They’ve also often shelled out for chronic absences and many hours of unproductive work long before the leave issue even kicks in.”

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