By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
A senior official in the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement office has warned managers they should direct inquiries from reporters, congressional investigators and the agency's inspector general to designated officials rather than answering the questions themselves, according to an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post.
The June 16 e-mail from Robbi Farrell, who heads the agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, instructs managers to remind employees "at your next staff meeting" that if they "are contacted directly by the IG's office or GAO requesting information of any kind . . . Please do not respond to questions or make any statements." Farrell issued the same instructions for media inquiries, saying rank-and-file agency officials should "forward the call or e-mail" to one of two press officers and copy her on the exchange.
Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, said the missive highlighted the quandary some EPA officials face when they want to speak out against political interference with their work. In April, the group released a survey of agency officials in which 889 of nearly 1,600 staff scientists surveyed said they had encountered political interference in their jobs at least once in the past five years.
"Our recent investigation of the EPA tells us that retaliation is widespread at that agency," said Grifo, whose group provided The Post with a copy of the e-mail. "So it's critical that when the IG's office and GAO are investigating a wrongdoing, employees are able to speak confidentially. The work of the IG and GAO have repeatedly helped protect the health and safety of Americans."
EPA spokeswoman Roxanne Smith -- who was identified in Farrell's e-mail as one of two press officers who should handle questions reporters might post to agency officials -- said in a statement that the division chief was trying "to ensure consistency and coordination among those responding to IG and GAO reports." The e-mail was a response to a recent EPA inspector general's report titled "EPA Can Improve its Oversight of Audit Followup," she said.
"A senior staffer in the enforcement office sent out an e-mail to simply help her office efficiently respond to requests from the press, GAO and EPA's inspector general," Smith said. "There is nothing in the procedure that restricts conversation between enforcement staff, the press, GAO and the IG and the procedure is consistent with existing agency polices."
No one should view the e-mail as a change in policy, Smith added: "The enforcement office will consult with the IG to ensure that the procedure serves its intended purpose -- to ensure timely responses and assist in tracking and record keeping obligations."