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Trump appointees allowed terminated EPA staffers to keep receiving salaries, watchdog report says

Signage is seen at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington on May 10. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
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Two former Environmental Protection Agency officials intentionally kept two staffers on the payroll and allowed them to continue receiving their salaries even after they were terminated, according to a report from the agency’s independent watchdog. The report also found that the former officials, both appointed by former president Donald Trump, committed other fraudulent payroll-related activities — including one giving the other an improper pay increase — that cost the EPA more than $130,000.

The EPA’s Office of Inspector General investigated former EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson and former White House liaison Charles Munoz and concluded in March that they had “made and used official time sheets and personnel forms that contained materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to facilitate continued payments to two employees after they had left the agency, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Washington Post and first reported by Politico.

One of those employees named in the report, Madeline Morris, was terminated from her job as a scheduler for former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in August 2017. The report stated that Jackson met with Morris on Aug. 31, 2017, to tell her “we’ll take care of you” by providing “severance pay,” even though he knew severance pay was not allowed. The report found Jackson directed Munoz to tell human resources Morris was on an extended telework schedule, even though she was no longer working, and that Munoz amended Morris’s time-and-attendance reports so she could continue being paid.

The other aide named in the report was Kevin Chmielewski, a former EPA deputy chief of staff of operations who was forced to leave the agency in February 2018. According to the report, Munoz met with Chmielewski on Feb. 12, 2018 to advise him to resign immediately — “because I was told to do so by Jackson and Pruitt.” Munoz later told investigators Jackson had directed him to provide “severance pay” to Chmielewski on the condition that he resign, even though the EPA cannot provide severance packages, the report said.

Chmielewski told investigators he refused to resign and was escorted from the building by armed security guards. The escort by security could not be independently confirmed.

“They lied for weeks. They said that I resigned,” Chmielewski told The Post. “And then, weeks and months went by where I was still receiving a paycheck.”

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Chmielewski confirmed to investigators he did not perform any work for the EPA after Feb. 12, 2018, but continued receiving a salary and benefits through April of that year. According to the OIG report, both Munoz and Jackson later signed off on paperwork falsely stating Chmielewski had resigned on March 17, 2018, and Jackson directed Munoz to continue to enter and approve pay for Chmielewski. Chmielewski told The Post a lawsuit regarding the matter is ongoing.

Both Morris and Chmielewski had objected to the deletion of items from Pruitt’s public calendar, including a dinner in Rome with a Vatican cardinal later charged with sexual misconduct, and the report said Chmielewski told investigators he believed he had been fired as retaliation for telling Pruitt and Jackson that such calendar alterations were illegal. Pruitt resigned as head of the agency in July 2018, amid multiple controversies over his spending, ethics and management.

Emails obtained by The Post in 2018 indicated Morris and Jackson discussed her continuing to receive a paycheck even after she left the EPA. In an interview with OIG investigators, Jackson suggested he had kept Morris on the payroll in part because he believed her termination was unfair.

“It’s what I chose to do,” Jackson told investigators, according to the report. “You know, I wanted a transition period. I didn’t think it was really fair to her, what was going down … I wanted to be helpful to her.”

Morris’s and Chmielewski’s unauthorized salary and benefits cost the EPA $37,913.23, the report said.

The report also found that Jackson signed off on an improper four-step pay increase for Munoz when Munoz, a former White House liaison, was made “senior lied to the regional administrator for EPA Region 9” in May 2018, resulting in a loss to the government of $40,575.11. In addition, the report found that Munoz submitted inaccurate information about his work hours and attendance for several pay periods, resulting in an additional loss to the government of $55,150.44.

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The EPA inspector general’s probe began when the watchdog received a tip about the improper payments in May 2018 and included interviews with Jackson, Munoz, Morris, Chmielewski and several witnesses, as well as examination of emails, phone logs and other official records. Jackson and Munoz did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday and Saturday. Morris could not be reached for comment. None of the four are still employed by the EPA.

The inspector general’s office said the report was provided to current EPA administrator Michael Regan, a Biden appointee, “for any action deemed appropriate.” EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said the agency is reviewing the report.

It was not Jackson’s first time caught up in an investigation by the EPA’s inspector general. In 2019, the agency’s watchdog accused Jackson of refusing to cooperate with an ongoing audit and investigation focused on his dealings with an EPA scientific adviser ahead of her congressional testimony. While the office probed in 2019 whether Jackson improperly destroyed agency records, the OIG concluded last year that the agency has no reason to believe that occurred.

“To countenance open defiance even in one instance — much less two, both by a senior official setting precedent for himself and all agency staff — is ruinous,” then-acting EPA inspector general Charles J. Sheehan wrote in a publicly released letter.

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