For Immediate Release: Thursday, May 14, 2020
Contact: Kirsten Stade firstname.lastname@example.org
All EPA Staff, Including Political Appointees, Must Submit to Interviews
Washington, DC — In reaction to charges of non-cooperation from its Inspector General, Administrator Andrew Wheeler has decided that political appointees atop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, unlike line staff, can now ignore requests to answer questions from the IG. A coalition of government watchdog, public health, and conservation groups led by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is urging Wheeler to end this questionable double standard shielding political appointees from inquiry.
In 2019, after Wheeler’s Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson refused to submit to an interview with IG investigators, Wheeler asked his General Counsel, Matt Leopold, for a legal opinion on the question. In a November 5, 2019 memo, Leopold sided with Jackson, opining that “It is ultimately the Administrator that maintains control of the [IG] information sought and decides what constitutes an adequate accommodation by the Agency” and the law “does not authorize the OIG to take oral interviews.” In answer to congressional protests sparked by this opinion, in early April Wheeler indicated that he stood behind Leopold’s opinion.
“Andrew Wheeler has created an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ system of accountability at EPA, where his inner circle is exempt from review,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney. “Even if the IG lacks the power to compel interviews, Mr. Wheeler can and should require that all staff, including political appointees, submit for IG interviews and answer questions truthfully or face discipline, including removal.”
Wheeler’s latest action contrasts with his own “Message to EPA Employees on Cooperating with EPA’s Inspector General” on August 8, 2018, issued after the abrupt departure of his controversial predecessor, Scott Pruitt, but before he was confirmed by the Senate, that –
“The OIG [Office of Inspector General] is an independent office within the EPA and, to meet its statutory mandate under the Inspector General Act, the OIG requires information and assistance from EPA managers and staff on a regular basis. It is imperative and expected that agency personnel provide the OIG with access to personnel, facilities and records or other information or material that is needed by the OIG to accomplish its mission.” (emphasis added)
Wheeler’s recent reversal is reminiscent of a gag order issued to EPA staff in 2008, during the last months of the George W. Bush administration, that they “not respond to questions or make any statements” to investigators from either the Government Accountability Office or the IG.
“As things stand now, the EPA IG is a watchdog without teeth,” added Whitehouse, noting that the Leopold opinion, which Wheeler appears to endorse, declares that due to “Constitutional limitations” the IG is not an independent agency. “Mr. Wheeler’s prior statements about the independence of the IG are now in serious doubt.”
The PEER letter is co-signed by the Government Accountability Project, Project on Government Oversight, CREW, Whistleblowers of America, National Center for Health Research, MRSA Survivors Network, Pesticide Action Network, Open the Government, Whistleblowers of America, and Food & Water Action.