WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency assured Congress on Wednesday it will resolve a sensational dispute with its inspector general over allegations that President Barack Obama’s political staff inside the agency interfered with investigations.
EPA’s deputy administrator, Bob Perciasepe, told the House Oversight and Government Reform committee that he will instruct EPA’s little-known Office of Homeland Security to seek permission to share information with the inspector general’s office.
The announcement came during a congressional hearing after a top investigator with the inspector general testified that the office, run out of the EPA administrator’s office, had for years systematically refused to share information on external threats, computer security and employee misconduct, citing national security.
The 10-person office was initially set up in 2003 by then Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to coordinate EPA activities such as hazardous materials cleanup and water contamination that can stem from terrorist attacks.
In 2012, the office signed an agreement with the FBI to be the point of contact for all investigations with a national security connection. But Patrick Sullivan, an assistant EPA inspector general for investigations, told lawmakers that national security was an excuse to keep his office in the dark on misconduct allegations.
“I have zero visibility on what the Office of Homeland Security is doing. That is the problem,” Sullivan said.
In response, Deputy EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe said he would direct the office to seek permission of the FBI to be more forthcoming with the agency.
“We do not want to have a problem with the inspector general’s access,” said Perciasepe, adding that since Obama took office, EPA personnel had cooperated with more than 2,600 audits and investigations.
“The vast majority of work is done efficiently, appropriately and with good result,” he said.
The turf battle between the two offices is the latest under the Obama administration to question the effective independence of the government’s inspectors general, which are also political appointments but are expected to work outside any political influence.
Two weeks ago, the Homeland Security Department put its former inspector general on administrative leave after senators concluded that he was too cozy with senior DHS officials and improperly rewrote, delayed or classified some critical reports to accommodate Obama’s political appointees.
Last year, the Defense Department’s inspector general removed material from a draft report that concluded then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had improperly disclosed classified information about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden to a producer for the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”
The dispute between the inspector general’s office and the EPA’s homeland security office came to a head last year when Republicans in Congress investigated the agency’s handling of John C. Beale, a former deputy assistant administrator. He pleaded guilty in federal court last fall to stealing $886,186 between 2000 and April 2013, falsely claiming he was working undercover for the CIA. The Beale case was initially investigated by the homeland security office months before the IG’s office was made aware of it.
Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said EPA leadership prevents the inspector general’s office from doing its job. Issa highlighted other cases of employee misconduct inside the EPA, including one employee who confessed to spending hours viewing pornography at work and another selling jewelry and weight-loss pills out of her office. Those cases are under investigation by the IG, and one has been referred to the Justice Department.
“Until [the inspector general's office] is allowed to do their job to extent they are mandated, we will never know more about John Beale and cases like that,” Issa said.
The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, characterized the issue as a jurisdictional dispute. He said the IG’s office, EPA senior leadership and the FBI are sitting down next week to work out a resolution. But even he expressed frustration with the EPA’s ability to get its internal affairs in order.
“It’s a damn shame,” he said, “we had to call a hearing for you all to communicate.”