United States GAO General Accounting Office Washington, D.C. 20548 Resources, Community, and Economic Development Division B-282057 March 2,1999 The Honorable F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. Chairman, Committee on Science House of Representatives Subject: Environmental Protection: Emnlovees Who Made Allegations and Left a Dear Mr. Chairman: The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment. EPA’s purpose is to ensure that all Americans are protected from significant environmental health risks and that national efforts to reduce environmental risks are based on the best available scientific information. On June 10,1998, The Wash&ton Times published a letter from 20 individuals,’ including EPA employees, alleging mismanagement by EPA and retaliation against whistleblowers. On January 29,1999, we reported on the specific allegations of these individuals and instances of alleged whistleblower retaliation by the agency.’ We further reported that some of the individuals were no longer working at EPA You requested that we provide additional information on three EPA employees who are no longer employed by EPA, two individuals who left EPA after working under either an interagency agreement appointment or for a grantee, and one individual who remains on EPA’s payroll but has a 2-year assignment at a university. Specifically, you asked why the individuals had left and their current employment status. RESULTS IN BRIEF Six of the 20 individuals who sent the letter making allegations to the newspaper no longer work at EPA Three of these individuals left as a condition of settlement agreements resolving complaints they filed against the agency. Another two individuals, who had been working under either an interagency agreement or under a grant, left when the interagency agreement appointment expired or when EPA no longer required the individual’s services. Another individual was removed from his position for unacceptable work performance. ‘The Wash&ton Times published the letter with 13 signatures. The original letter the newspaper received had 19 signatures. Six of the signatures were not published because the newspaper did not get permission from those individuals to print their names. The actual author of the letter was not among its signers but was considered for the purposes of this report to be the 20th individual involved. 2Environmental Protection: Alleeations bv EPA Emolovees (GAO/RCED-99-61R.Jan. 29,1999). /6/ 77f GAO/RCED-99-97R Employees Who Made Allegations and Left EPA B-282057 For those individuals no longer working at EPA, as of February 1999,three are unemployed, one has found new employment working at a university teaching biological engineering, and the employment status of one employee is unknown. Another individual remains on EPA’s payroll but has a Z-year assignment at a university and has agreed to resign or retire from the agency no later than May 2003. BACKGROUND The 20 individuals who sent the letter to The Washington Times alleged that EPA employees have been harassed and fired for criticizing EPA’s enforcement of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act; the Clean Air Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; and other environmental statutes. The individuals alleged that retaliation against whistleblowem occurs at every management level and is supported throughout EPA Additionally, the letter stated that even if whistleblowers’ claims are substantiated, whistleblowers are fired or their careers are “dead-ended” and that the agency employees carrying out the retaliation are rewarded. Employees who believe they have been retaliated against by an employer, including EPA, for whistleblower activities related to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act; the Clean Air Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Federal Water Pollution Control Act; the Solid Waste Disposal Act; and the Toxic Substances Control Act may file a complaint with the Secretary of Labor under employee protection provisions contained in these laws. Complaints filed under these environmental laws are reviewed by an Occupational Safety and Health Adnkistration investigator3 If the investigator determines that retaliation has occurred, the Occupational Safety and Health Adminktration may order corrective actions. Unless the Occupational Safety and Health Adminktration’s findings and remedy are appealed, the order becomes a final order of the Secretary of Labor. However, either party may request a hearing before a Department of Labor admkistrative law judge. Jf a hearing is requested, any tidings made by the Occupational Safety and Health Admikstmtion are given no legal effect, and a new review of the complaint is begun. Recommended decisions and orders issued by the adminktrative law judges may be appealed to the Department of Labor Admikstrative Review Board and, after that, to the United States court of appeals for the circuit in which the alleged discrimination occurred. The employee and the employer, such as EPA, may agree to settle the complaint at any time and reach a settlement agreement. A condition of these agreements may be that either party shall not disclose the terms of the agreements. During the time between the publication of the letter in The Washington Times in June 1998 and our review in February 1999,6 of the 20 employees who sent the letter were no longer working at EPA Five of these individuals had filed complaints; one had not. The specifics of these whistleblower complaints are contained in our prior report4 STheOccupational Safety and Health Administration is an agency within the Department of Labor. prior to February 3, 1997, these matters were investigated by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. ‘GAO/RCED-99-61FI,Jan. 29,1999. 2 GAOIRCED-99-97R Employees Who Made Allegations and Left EPA B-282057 REASONS INDIVIDUALS LEFT AND THEIR EMPLOYMENT STATUS The six individuals no longer working at EPA left for three reasons: (1) three left as a condition of a settlement agreement resolving complaints they filed against the agency; (2) one left because his employment agreement had expired, and one left because the work she was doing was no longer needed; and (3) one employee was removed from his position for unacceptable work performance. Three of these six individuals were unemployed as of February 1999, a fourth individual was working at a university teaching biological engineering, and a iifth individual was on a 2-year assignment at a university. We were unable to contact the sixth individual to determine his employment status. The specific reasons the individuals left are contained in the enclosure to this report, but a brief summary follows: l One employee did not leave EPA’s payroll but, as part of a settlement agreement, voluntarily began a 2-year assignment at the University of Georgia in December 1998. He had been an employee at EPA’s laboratory in Athens, Georgia, and had filed a complaint against the agency for retaliation for whistleblower activities. (He is identified as individual 1 in our prior report and in the enclosure to this report.) l One employee of EPA’s Region VIII office in Denver, Colorado, left in November 1998 as part of a settlement agreement. He stated that he felt he had no future at EPA with people he could not trust. He is currently unemployed. (He is identified as individual 3 in our prior report and in the enclosure to this report.) l Another EPA Region VIlI employee left in September 1998 as part of a settlement agreement after he filed a discrimina tion complaint against the agency. He and the agency agreed not to disclose the terms of the agreement, and we were unable to determine his employment status. (He is identified as individual 10 in our prior report and in the enclosure to this report.) * An individual who was working for a contractor at EPA’s laboratory in Athens had his appointment to a 3-year position expired in July 1998. Such appointments cannot exceed 3 years. The individual was working at the University of Georgia in February 1999. (He is identified as individual 7 in our prior report and in the enclosure to this report.) l Another individual had been working for a grantee in EPA Region VIII through an agreement between EPA and a nonprofit center that employs older workers. The individual stated that EPA terminated her employment for whistleblower activities and hired a full-time employee to replace her. According to EPA, the individual’s agreement with the center was not renewed because her duties were no longer required and funds were unavailable. (She is identified as individual 17 in the enclosure to this report.) l One other individual had been an EPA Re#on VIII employee and was removed from his position in January 1999 for unacceptable work performance. He was unemployed as of February 1999. (He is identied as individual 11 in our prior report and in the enclosure to this report.) AGENCY COMMENTS We provided a draft of this report to EPA for review and comment. The agency generally agreed that the report provided a good characterization of the circumstances surrounding the six individuals who left EPA after sending the letter to The Washington Times. EPA 3 GAO/RCED-99-97R Employees Who Made Allegations and Left EPA B-282057 suggested some editorial changes to the report to help ensure that the information on the six individuals was accurate, and we incorporated the agency’s comments as appropriate. SCOPE AND METHODOLOGY To obtain information on why the individuals left EPA and their current employment status, we interviewed all of the individuals, except for one we were unable to contact. We also obtained documents and comments from EPA on why the individuals left the agency, and we included this information in the enclosure to this report. We conducted our review from November 1998through February 1999 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. We are sending copies of this report to the appropriate congressional committees; interested Members of Congress; the Adnkistmtor of EPA; and other interested parties. We will also make copies available on request. Please call me at (202) 5126111 if you or your staff have any questions. Major contributors to this report were Doreen S. Feldman, Hamilton C. Greene, Robert E. Lippencott, Everett 0. Pace, Rosemary Torres-Lerma, and John A. Wan&a. Sincerely yours, yfj&q& - Peter F. Guerrero Director, Environmental Protection Issues Enclosure GAOIRCED-99-97R Employees Who Made Allegations and Left EPA ENCLOSURE I ENCLOSURE I REASONS INDIVIDUALS LEFT EPA This enclosure lists the reasons six individuals left the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after sending a letter critical of the agency to The Washington Times. The letter to the newspaper was published in June 1998;the six individuals had left the agency by the end of January 1999. The individuals are identified by numbers that are the same as those used in our report, Environmental Protection: Allegations bv EPA EmDlovees (GAO/RCED-99-GlR, Jan. 29,1999). The reasons the individuals left are organized and presented in three categories: l Three individuals left as a condition of settlement agreements resolving complaints they filed against the agency. (See table I. 1.) l Two individuals left when either an interagency agreement appointment expired or when the services they were performing were no longer required. (See table 1.2.) l One individual was removed from his position for unacceptable work performance. (See table 1.3.) GAO/RCED-99-97R Employees Who Made Allegations and Left EPA ENCLOSURE I ENCLOSURE I Table 1.1: Individuals Who Left as a Condition of Settlement Aareements Reason em@ yee left EPA Employee’s account EPA’s account Current status of Individual who left Individual 1, an EPA employee in Athens, Ga., filed As settlement, the individual agreed (1) to withdraw The individual began his 2-year assignment at the a complaint with the Occupational Safety and the complaint, (2) to the previous findings of the University of Georgia 0.n December 13, 1998. Health Administration after his promotion was Occupational Safety and Health Administration denied. In negotiating a settlement with EPA being moot and without effect, (3) to take a a-year during the investigation of his complaint, he Intergovernmental Personnel Act assignment at the proposed to leave EPA, a condition that was University of Georgia, (4) to resign or retire no later subsequently part of a settlement with EPA. than May 28,2003, and (5) to generally limit his Individual 1 did not leave EPA. However, this university work to pathogen contamination of individual has been assigned to an medical or dental devices. EPA agreed (1) to pay Intergovernmental Personnel Act assignment at the 100 percent of the individual’s salary and benefits University of Georgia. while he is on the assignment, (2) to consider an extension of the assignment beyond the original 2- year period, and (3) to pay $25,000 in attorney fees and costs. On January 5, 1999, the Office of Administrative Law Judges- approved .. the settlement. Individual 3, an EPA employee in Region VIII, As settlement of a complaint filed by the individual According to individual 3, he is currently reviewing Denver, Colo., resigned from EPA on November 7, with the Department of’labor, Office of his optio&. Since leaving EPA, he has finished - 1998. According to individual 3, he felt that he had Administrative Law Judges, the individual agreed to most of the classes needed for completion of his no future at EPA with people he could not trust. He (1) withdraw the complaint and (2) to resign his doctoral program. He is currently unemployed. resigned because he believed he was a victim of position as an environmental scientist no later than many violations of the law. For example, individual November 7, 1998. EPA agreed to (1) make a 3 stated that EPA’s Inspector General conducted a lump sum payment to the individual and his criminal investigation against him and that the counsel in the amount of $100,000 and (2) provide Inspector General’s agent in charge of the him with a mutually acceptable letter of investigation was very aggressive and committed employment reference. illegal acts, including harassment, changing testimony, and omitting information favorable to the employee from the Inspector General’s report. He also stated that the EPA official who allegedly helped bring the charges against him gave false statements to the Inspector General. Individual 10. an EPA emplovee in Reoion VIII, The individual resigned from EPA on September The current status of the individual is unknown. Denver, resigned from EPA on September 30,. 30, 1998, in accordance with a settlement 1998. On March 3, 1998, the individual filed a agreement between EPA and the individual. Both complaint of discrimination with EPA. The gariies to the settlement agreed to not divulge the individual ultimately withdrew that complaint when ,erms of the agreement in any manner. he resigned from EPA. GAO/RCED-99-97R Employees Who Made Allegations and Left EPA ENCLOSURE I ENCLOSURE I Table 1.2: individuals Who Left When Their lnteraaencv Aareement Annointment Ended or When Services Thev Were Performina Were No Lonaer Needed r Reason emalovee left EPA -I- Employee’s account EPA’s account Current status of individual who left Individual 7 was an employee of the Oak Ridge EPA stated that an individual’s appointment to the The individual is currently a professor teaching Institute for Science and Engineering, a Oak Ridge institute for Science and Engineering biological engineering at the University of Georgia’s Department of Energy program that is operated program is renewed on an yearly basis, with engineering school. by a contractor. EPA has an interagency extensions based on the status of a participant’s Agreement with the Department of Energy training and the availability of funds. However, whereby Institute employees work at EPA’s according to EPA, appointments cannot exceed 3 Ecosystems Research Division in Athens, Ga. years, and the individual’s appointment ended on Individual 7 had a 3-year appointment to the July 31, 1998. Institute, effective August 1, 1995, and ending on July 31, 1998. When the individual’s 3-year appointment with EPA ended, he left EPA. Individual 17 did not file a whistleblower complaint According to EPA, the individual’s agreement was According to the individual, she has not sought other but left EPA. The individual had an agreement not renewed because of a regulatory change that employment and is currently unemployed. with EPA through the National Older Workers resulted in her work no longer being required. Career Center and was assigned to EPA in (EPA’s Water Enforcement Program is no longer Region VIII, Denver, Colo., to perform clerical required to issue the public notices the individual duties (mailing public notices and filing) for the handled.) EPA stated that it did not hire a full-time Water Enforcement Program. The individual EPA employee to replace the individual. EPA also stated that EPA terminated her agreement on stated that a lack of funds was another factor that June 8, 1998, as retaliation for whistleblower contributed to the decision not to renew her activities. According to the individual, EPA hired agreement. a full-time EPA employee to replace her. 7 GAO/RCED-99-97R Employees Who Made Allegations and Left EPA ENCLOSURk’I ENCLOSURE I Table 1.3: Individual Who Was Removed for UnacceDtable Performance Reason employee left EPA Employee’s account EPA’s account Current status of individual who left On May 26, 1998, individual 11, an EPA EPA agreed with the individual’s account of why he According to the individual, he is currently applying employee in Region VIII, Denver, Cola., was left EPA, with the exception of the comment by the for other federal jqbs but has not been successful placed on a Performance Improvement Plan individual that the removal was unjustified and was in locating employment. because of an unsatisfactory rating. On illegal retaliation. November 16, 1998, the individual was notified that EPA proposed to remove him in 30 days because he failed to perform at the minimum level required for retention. The individual indicated on the notice that it was unjustified and was illegal retaliation. On January 15, 1999, the individual was removed for unacceptable work performance. On a prior complaint alleging retaliation, the Office of Special Counsel determined that the employee’s complaint did not rise to the level of protected disclosure. The individual appealed the decision, and the appeal is currently under review by the Merit Systems Protection Board. (160471) 8 GAOIRCED-99-97R Employees Who Made Allegations and Left EPA Ordering Information The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free. Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the following address, accompanied by a check or money order made out to the Superintendent of Documents, when necessary. VISA and Mastercard credit cards are accepted, also. Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address are discounted 25 percent. Orders by mail: U.S. General Accounting Office P.O. 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Environmental Protection: Employees Who Made Allegations and Left EPA
Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-03-02.
Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)