The Environmental Protection Agency is creating a festering “culture of complacency” by dragging its feet on action against employee misconduct, the agency’s watchdog found, leaving the public to wonder if one of the most mission-driven areas of government is running smoothly.
Employees watching porn on government computers, a senior executive who looked the other way while an employee faked his time sheet, another senior employee who took another paying job while on the federal clock — these are some of the examples Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. cited last week in a report on the six management challenges facing the EPA this fiscal year.
They range from managing chemical risks to improving oversight of states, which work with the federal government to implement environmental policies. The challenges serve as a roadmap for senior leaders. While the IG reported some progress on each after they all made last year’s list, they’ve stayed “due to persistent issues,” investigators wrote.
In the realm of fraud and abuse, the IG cited a need for better management oversight and “prompt action” against employees found to be guilty of misconduct.
The EPA, like many agencies in the executive branch, is apparently not using the tools it does have to take action against bad actors. Investigators cited examples of wrongdoing that were no-brainers for quick punishment, but were handled instead with a laissez-faire approach:
- A senior executive who was found to have moonlighted during government hours with a paid, private-sector job received a prestigious presidential rank award for $33,928. It took EPA 11 months — until November — to begin firing the employee, who remains on paid leave while he or she appeals the proposed termination.
- Two employees earning $120,000 a year were watching pornography on the job and were put on paid administrative leave for almost a year before anybody tried to fire them. One case was discovered in November 2013, the other in May 2014, but it took until March of this year for the agency to move to fire them. One employee retired. The other is appealing the decision, and remains on paid leave.
- Like most agencies, EPA uses administrative leave generously, maybe too much so: Eight employees accused of misconduct are sitting at home on paid leave that’s reached 21,000 hours, costing taxpayers $1,096,868.
- Investigators reported that Beth Craig, director of Climate Protection Partnerships at the Office of Air and Radiation (OAR), approved unwarranted time and expenses for 10 years for John C. Beale, who masqueraded as a CIA agent to steal $900,000 in government pay, bonuses and expenses (Beale pleaded guilty and is serving a prison term). Craig’s role was reported to senior EPA leaders in April 2014. But she was allowed to retire 10 months later, “without administrative action ever being taken.”
In government, there is always a tension between taking action against someone who has clearly broken rules or laws and that employee’s rights to due process, which, like it or not, are significant — and one of the biggest differences between the government and the private sector. The result is that many federal employees sit at home on paid leave for months, and sometimes years.
As far back as 2007, the IG’s office criticized EPA leaders for failing to respond quickly to employee misconduct — the average time was 200 days — and for not taking severe enough discipline. The agency agreed, but last week’s report notes that officials still have not revised their handbook for laying out a timeline for the disciplinary process, which was written in 1998.
“The agency needs to continue to confront this culture of complacency,” the IG wrote. “Failure to do so could seriously affect agency resources, impacting the ability of the agency to achieve its mission and goals.”
Investigators criticized what appears to be a weak improvement strategy thus far: “Commitment is not demonstrated by a one-time memo and a new policy,” they wrote. “The message must be communicated repeatedly throughout the organization by many means, both formal and informal, to reinforce a strong ‘tone at the top.'”
Administrator Gina McCarthy seems to be taking action now, though. In January, when the IG’s concerns became clear, she sent a memo to the 15,000 EPA employees titled, “Working with [the Office of the Inspector General] to make EPA a High Performing Organization.” She urged the staff to come forward when they suspect or observe their colleagues wasting money, abusing the system or committing fraud.
Here are some of the memo’s highlights:
One of the ways we can ensure that we all perform at our best is to support the internal review and oversight carried out by our Office of Inspector General. The OIG serves as an independent office within our agency, preventing and rooting out fraud, waste and abuse in agency programs and operations, largely through audits and investigations. This important work enables us all to be more effective in achieving the agency’s mission. The vigilance of EPA staff is key to successful OIG oversight. I expect all employees to report fraud, waste andabuse to the OIG if they see it. The types of conduct that should be reported include: theft of EPA funds, misuse of contract or grant monies, misuse of EPA equipment or assets for personal gain, falsification of EPA reports or records, serious employee misconduct, or participation in EPA program fraud.Please rest assured that I am working closely with the Inspector General to prevent instances of inappropriate release of information, to ensure EPA employees are being treated fairly and respectfully, and to recognize the valuable role that EPA employees have played in supporting OIG oversight.