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EPA Criminal Program Reforms Coming Undone

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EPA Criminal Program Reforms Coming Undone

Restoration of Removed Managers Risks Renewed Exodus of Special Agents

Washington, DC — Less than three months after shaking up the leadership of its troubled criminal enforcement program in order to “improve communication and management”, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is bringing back the same controversial managers it had just removed, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).   This reversal threatens to spark resumption of the ruinous turnover that has plagued EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID), the unit charged with investigating major pollution and other eco-crimes.

Following a scathing consultant report about escalating turmoil within CID, Assistant Administrator for Enforcement Cynthia Giles announced in an October 19, 2010 memo that CID Director Becky Barnes was immediately reassigned; her superior, Director of the Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics & Training (OCEFT) was retiring; plus three other top level departures and transfers.   That report found –

  • A pattern of  “personnel abuses, including a workplace of fear, divisiveness, low morale [which] may have resulted in a significant loss of talented staff”;
  • Excessive use of disciplinary actions resulted from “unchecked” and “unreasonable management behavior.” The report cited 37 completed or pending disciplinary actions taken among a cadre of only 154 field agents, according to a tabulation of active agents by PEER; and
  • CID is split into “two camps… one of HQ managers and SACs [Special Agents-in-Charge] and the other of [field] agents and other staff.”

These findings paralleled those of a PEER survey of CID special agents also released in October, most prominently a widespread fear of job retaliation by management (71%); poor morale (87%); and a pervasive belief that management does not listen to field agents (75%).   Not surprisingly, several CID agents have reported their extreme consternation to PEER over end-of year personnel moves, including –

  • Becky Barnes, who had been removed as CID Director, returning as Assistant Director for OCEFT, the parent organization, making the move a functional promotion;
  • Doug Parker, detailed away from his position as CID Deputy Director, as acting Deputy Director of OCEFT, another functional promotion; and
  • Restoration of the human resources attorney responsible for what one agent called a “reign of terror” of disciplinary actions, excruciating evaluation exercises and internal investigations.

“It appears that a palace counter-revolt snuffed out the promise of reforming EPA’s criminal enforcement program,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who is attempting to determine ongoing turnover rates within CID and what is being done to increase retention of experienced investigators.  “This is not just about a ‘screw-up-and-move-up’ culture inside EPA.  Allowing these dysfunctional conditions to fester threatens to cripple our main defense against criminal corporate pollution practices.”

In September, PEER called attention to record low numbers of CID agents in the field and declining numbers of cases referred for federal prosecution – a disclosure which prompted a vow by AA Giles to add 40 new CID agents by the end of 2010.  While new agents are needed, steady loss of seasoned agents disrupts complex multi-year investigations while lowering overall efficiency and effectiveness of a unit already plagued by lack of clear investigative focus and management disarray.

“After admitting severe breakdowns in communication and trust, bringing back the same managers who fostered this ‘upstairs-downstairs’ organizational conflict sends precisely the wrong message if EPA wants to keep agents from bailing,” Ruch added.  “Taxpayers have a big investment in training these specialized white-collar criminal investigators.”