Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is ordering its staff to “not respond to questions or make any statements” if contacted by congressional investigators, reporters or even by its own Office of Inspector General, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The order reinforces a growing bunker mentality within an EPA that is the subject of a growing number of probes into political interference with agency operations.
In a June 16, 2008 e-mail distributed throughout EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, managers were asked to “remind your staff” to comply with “these important procedures.” These procedures forbid staff from speaking with any reporters or representatives of the Government Accountability Office or the EPA Inspector General (IG). If contacted, EPA employees are not supposed to say anything but are to immediately refer the person to a designated public affairs official.
“Inside the current EPA, candor has become the cardinal sin,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that while this directive is of questionable legality, an agency specialist risks discipline or even termination for disregarding a direct order. “The clear intention behind this move is to chill the cubicles by suppressing any uncontrolled release of information.”
By way of justification, EPA’s Office of Public Affairs defends the order as “standard operating procedures” to promote efficiency and consistency in responding to official investigations. That office also contends this “procedure was developed in part to respond to a recent IG report” entitled “EPA Can Improve its Oversight of Audit Followup” issued in May 2007.
That cited IG report, however, makes no such recommendation and is primarily about how EPA lacks an accountability system for correcting admitted deficiencies identified in previous IG audits. Moreover, the cited audit has absolutely nothing to do with reporters or the Congressional GAO.
An additional concern is that the directive may illegally obstruct IG or GAO investigations. Although the EPA Public Affairs claims that the IG “signed off on” the gag order it has not offered written confirmation of that approval. Moreover, an inquiry to the EPA IG General Counsel as to the propriety of this directive has gone unanswered. Currently, the EPA Inspector General position is vacant.
Today, EPA is the target of intense scrutiny, including congressional attempts to subpoena agency files. Following increasingly contentious hearings, Administrator Johnson has even refused to appear before a Senate committee. By contrast, 25 years ago EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus proclaimed that –
“EPA would operate ‘in a fishbowl’. We will attempt to communicate with everyone … as openly as possible.”
While this 1983 Ruckelshaus “fishbowl” policy was never rescinded, it no longer reflects agency practice.
“Ironically, EPA has brought a lot of these congressional hearings on itself by not being open,” added Ruch, questioning the need for such secrecy at a public health agency. “Fortunately, non-disclosure policies do not work very well as evidenced by the robust traffic in these leaked e-mails.”