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Players: Nikki Tinsley

Looking Beyond Enforcement at the EPA

An Independent and a Career Auditor, Inspector General Breaks the Mold -- and, She Says, an Occasional Rule

By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page A13

The sofa in Nikki Tinsley's office in the Environmental Protection Agency sports one of those fluffy little pillows with needlepoint lettering that you expect to say "Home Sweet Home." A closer look reveals something much saucier: "If You Obey All the Rules, You Miss All the Fun."

This is not the watchword one expects from an inspector general, whose job it is to make sure her agency follows federal rules, laws, regulations, ethical codes and budgets. So is this a joke of some kind?

Nikki Tinsley, inspector general for the Environmental Protection Agency, says her office is "not just about following rules." She says, "We want to know if the rules make sense." (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

In Profile

Nikki Tinsley

Title: Inspector general, Environmental Protection Agency.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Virginia Commonwealth University; master's degree, University of Northern Colorado.

Age: 56.

Family: Divorced; a grown daughter.

Career highlights: Deputy inspector general, divisional inspector general, EPA; audit manager and staff auditor, Minerals Management Service, Interior Department; worked at the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), 1976-1982. She is also a certified public accountant.

Pastimes: Kayaking, traveling, reading.

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"No, it's not a joke. It's really me. We are not just about following rules," said Tinsley, the EPA's inspector general since 1999. "We want to know if the rules make sense."

Tinsley recently has issued investigative reports concluding that a number of them do not. In late September, for example, she reported that a rule promulgated by the EPA "has seriously hampered" clean-air litigation against electric utilities by scaling back a requirement that polluters install emissions controls when adding to their facilities.

The same day, even as EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt was on the campaign trail for President Bush, touting the nation's air as "the cleanest most Americans have ever breathed," another IG report found that smog levels in major metropolitan areas had remained the same or gotten worse, making the air unhealthful.

The reports put Tinsley, a registered independent appointed by President Bill Clinton, squarely in the crossfire of presidential politics. Democrats invoked them to attack President Bush's environmental record, and Republicans denounced them as partisan, saying Tinsley should stick to the traditional preserve of inspectors general -- waste, fraud and abuse.

"I find the timing of the release of this clearly politically driven document to be highly suspect," Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said at the time of Tinsley's report on the clean-air rule. ". . . The IG report can be taken no more seriously than a CBS news program."

A Republican staffer suggested that the committee may investigate Tinsley to determine whether she is biased. Democrats dismissed the suggestion as a preemptive strike at a forthcoming IG investigative report on another proposed EPA rule -- this one regulating mercury emissions from power plants.

"Just because you don't like the message doesn't mean you can shoot the messenger," said Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), ranking minority member of the Senate environment committee. "The EPA under the Bush administration has fought any oversight by Congress tooth and nail and ignored basic information requests. I believe the role of inspector general at the EPA has never been more important. We are lucky to have someone of Ms. Tinsley's experience and independence."

A certified public accountant with almost 30 years in federal government auditing -- at the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) and the Interior Department before the EPA -- Tinsley hardly seems flustered by the uproar. She pointed out that she has audited both Democratic and Republican administrations, and that neither has liked criticism.

"The joke among auditors is that the two biggest lies are 'We're here to help you' and the response 'We're glad to have you,' " she said with a laugh.

Tinsley's office has done more than 60 audits and evaluations this year, mostly without notice. She is the agency's in-house auditor of financial statements and recommends periodic improvements in information, procurement and management systems.

Among her other recent findings: serious weaknesses in the EPA's system for protecting the nation's drinking water from bioterrorism; delays in toxic waste cleanups -- and resulting public health hazards -- caused by Superfund budget shortfalls; and poor EPA oversight of grants, including a multimillion-dollar award to an arm of an ineligible lobbying organization.

Tinsley has been identifying accountability problems for a decade in the EPA's grants program and is recognized among fellow inspectors general as a grants expert. She now heads a government-wide team of 17 IGs as well as state auditors and the GAO that aims to improve accountability for more than $360 billion in grants annually.

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