House Holds EPA Official to the Flames

     WASHINGTON (CN) — A troublemaking sex offender that the Environmental Protection Agency kept on staff for years featured prominently Wednesday in a tumultuous hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives on rogue employees.
     Despite infractions that once got the sex offender suspended in 2006, the EPA did not fire this man until he violated his probation in 2014.
     The worker’s dustups dated back earlier, though, the OIG report shows. Back in 1999, he was reprimanded for having outfitted his car with illegal emergency lights, while also carrying badges and handcuffs.
     Because the Merit Systems Protection Board overturned this worker’s termination, however, the EPA had to rehire him and then pay him a $55,000 settlement to resign.
     “How do you lose that case?” asked House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican.
     The sex offender was just one example highlighted from EPA Office of the Inspector General documents that House Republicans used this morning in a two-hour grill session of EPA Acting Deputy Administrator A. Stanley Meiburg.
     Other lawmakers focused on the case of an EPA contractor in Seattle who admitted to watching pornography on a government computer for one or two hours a day for 18 years, or another in which an employee in Atlanta pawned digital cameras the agency owned.
     Committee Republicans said the EPA did not come down hard enough on these employees, instead allowing them to resign, putting them on probation or into counseling, or placing them on administrative leave.
     “That is the M.O.,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said at the hearing. “You steal, you sit around and watch porno, you get convictions outside. And you either voluntary resign or go to retirement, but nobody gets fired.”
     Republicans blamed this lax punishment on what they described as a broken agency culture, which eventually sent the questioning far beyond the scope of the cases highlighted in the Inspector General list.
     Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican who is piloting an effort to impeach EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, insisted Meiburg step down, saying he is violating federal law by serving in a position for which he has been nominated but not approved.
     “The personnel management within the EPA is a mess, and that is no surprise when the EPA’s top administrators are willful lawbreakers themselves,” Gosar said.
     Meiburg and Assistant Inspector General Patrick Sullivan said agency counsel has approved Meiburg’s service.
     Overly burdensome environmental regulations, a common Republican gripe, earned mention at the hearing as well. Questioning the EPA’s priorities, some lawmakers accused the agency of hypocrisy or of fining polluters simply to pay the salaries of misbehaving employees on administrative leave.
     “It’s just amazing to me that the agency doesn’t do more to punish people who are stealing from the agency, who even plead guilty to criminal theft, and they still have the rights and privileges on the shoulders of taxpayers to continue working for the agency,” said Rep. Jody Hice, a Georgia Republican. “I just can’t wrap my mind around this.”
     Meiburg emphasized that the cases lawmakers cited today were all at least two years old. Though he insisted the agency has improved its discipline procedures and communication with the inspector general, Meiburg acknowledged more work needs to be done.
     “But I must stress the isolated misconduct of a few does not reflect and must not overshadow the dedication and hard work of over 15,000 EPA employees who commit themselves every day to the important work of the agency,” Meiburg said.
     He also detailed new steps the agency has taken to curb the overuse of administrative leave, such as requiring more justification and review for leave requests and capping leave to 10 days. Meiburg added that the agency meets biweekly with the Inspector General’s Office, which he says has improved its response to employee misconduct unearthed by that office.
     But Republicans said the misconduct is evidence of a larger agency problem that has damaged the EPA’s reputation with the people and Congress alike.
     “I just believe that if the EPA wants the trust of the American people and this committee, they’ve got a long ways to go to get their house in order,” Hice said at the hearing.

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