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Highly critical report on EPA’s Office of Civil Rights

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If the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights were a chunk of ground, it would be declared a disaster area.

That’s the upshot of a highly critical report on the civil rights office released last month by the Deloitte Consulting firm. It paints a picture of a woefully incompetent and dysfunctional civil rights operation, despite the good intentions of EPA’s top leadership.

Because of a “turbulent environment” at the civil rights office, “OCR seemed to lose sight of its mission and priorities,” according to the report. “It appeared to place too much emphasis on minor responsibilities, like executing heritage events, and not enough on the critical discrimination cases affecting employees and disadvantaged communities.”

Specifically, the report says the office’s “record of poor performance” includes:

■ Only 6 percent of 247 Title VI complaints — those regarding allegations of discrimination against communities affected by EPA rules — have been accepted or dismissed within the agency’s 20-day time limit.

■ The backlog of cases is about a decade long. “At the time of this report’s publication, there were numerous cases that have been awaiting action for up to four years,” the report says. “Two cases have been in the queue for more than eight years.”

■ “OCR did not even complete” its annual documentation to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that is required of all federal agencies for 2006, 2007 and 2008.

■ The agency function for addressing equal employment opportunity violations within EPA (known as Title VII) “is known for poor investigative quality and a lack of responsiveness,” the report says.

This report didn’t materialize out of thin air. The EPA asked Deloitte to conduct a comprehensive review of the civil rights office and provide recommendations to improve it.

To the credit of EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, she posted the full report, along with her statement, on the agency’s Web site. Deloitte recognized EPA’s senior leadership for increasing the emphasis on resolving the issues and providing “significant support to OCR, investing both time and resources needed to address significant performance challenges.”

In her statement, Jackson said: “We will move quickly to address the issues raised in the report and continue our effort to make the EPA home to a model civil-rights program. I have asked Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe to lead a committee comprising senior managers from headquarters and the regions to review Deloitte’s report and other relevant information and to give me recommendations on next steps. I expect this committee to establish a process for robust employee and union engagement as we work together in the weeks and months ahead to strengthen and revitalize the EPA’s Civil Rights program.”

They have a lot of work to do.

The staff doesn’t have “the qualifications, knowledge and training to effectively complete its mission-related work,” according to the report. Even the “rudiments of organizational infrastructure,” such as well-documented policies and procedures and standardized processes, are lacking.

We’re talking basic stuff here.

“Staff members are often confused about their job duties,” the report says. Managers don’t have the tools to “manage the office’s business and hold staff members accountable for effectively executing their jobs.”

Deloitte made several recommendations. Leadership positions in OCR should be filled with a competent team of motivated civil rights professionals as part of an effort to build “a more capable workforce from top to bottom.”

The consulting firm also said Jackson should establish teams within EPA that would report to her and help the civil rights office “set priorities, marshal resources and remove obstacles that challenge timely and effective completion of important tasks.”

In a related development, the National Whistleblowers Center called on Jackson to fire Rafael DeLeon, the director of the civil rights office, but not because he has any responsibility for the problems Deloitte identified.

The letter from the Whistleblowers Center says “numerous women have filed complaints against” DeLeon. The allegations — which include name-calling and “off-color” remarks — seem weak and lack documentation. A news release from the center says DeLeon fired Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a center board member. She also is a former EPA employee whose whistlerblower case helped to spur passage of the No Fear Act, formally known as the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002.

EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said the agency will look into the allegations: “As the administrator said when she appointed him — and as the independent Deloitte report noted — Rafael is ‘an experienced Director with a strong understanding of OCR priorities.’ ”

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