‘Complaceny’ undermines EPA

Who wouldn’t want to work for the Environmental Protection Agency? At least that’s the impression one gets from reading about the agency’s “culture of complacency” about managing employees.

On one hand, as an EPA employee you get to participate in writing clean air and clean water rules affecting every American.

On the other hand, in your spare time you can violate federal employee rules without serious consequence. According to the agency’s inspector general, that can even include filing false expense accounts and watching pornography.

And if the agency’s managers decide to bring charges against you, they will likely put you on paid administrative leave where you continue to accumulate vacation time and other benefits while sitting at home or pursuing other interests.

From time to time the agency’s inspector general has raised similar issues in reports to the EPA administrator, and from time to time the IG reminds the agency that he does not see much in the way of reform.

In the latest such report, entitled “EPA Management Challenges,” Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. describes the agency’s failure to act on previous IG reports in a timely manner as exemplifying a “culture of complacency” at the EPA. His report says it takes an average of almost 200 days to initiate disciplinary action, while the EPA’s own rules require it to act within 30 days.

In one example, a supervisor allowed an employee to get away for 10 years with fraudulent travel vouchers and time and attendance records (he claimed he was working for the CIA). The employee was allowed to retire without any disciplinary action.

In another case, a senior employee conducted private business on government time using government resources — and was awarded a bonus of $33,928 for “meritorious” service. More than two years after his abuse was reported by the IG he is still drawing a government salary on paid administrative leave.

Then there is the case of the two EPA employees who were discovered downloading and viewing pornography on government computers during work hours. Both were put on paid administrative leave. More than a year later, one was allowed to retire. The other is still drawing a government salary.

One other IG finding: EPA has, hard to believe, an Office of Homeland Security that employs “one or more criminal investigators, armed with firearms, despite the fact that the office has no authority to engage in law enforcement or investigation.” The office refused to cooperate with the IG.

A regulatory agency that writes rules for the rest of us needs to be less complacent about its own laxity in sticking to the rules. The “culture of complacency” discredits the important work that the EPA is charged with doing.