EPA Timidly Tiptoes Toward Transparency
Staff Ordered to Cooperate with Inspector General but Not Other Investigators
Washington, DC — The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered her staff to cooperate with investigators from its Office of Inspector General, according to an all-employee e-mail released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This new directive reverses a gag order that had been issued last year but leaves unanswered questions about access by congressional investigators, the media and the public.
The August 7, 2009 e-mail by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson partially rescinds a June 16, 2008 e-mail distributed throughout EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in which managers were admonished to “remind your staff” that they should “not respond to questions or make any statements” if contacted by congressional investigators, reporters or its Office of Inspector General (OIG) without prior approval. In the new order, Jackson states:
“It is imperative that, upon request, Agency personnel provide OIG auditors, evaluators and investigators with full and unrestricted access to personnel, facilities, records (including, but not limited to, reports, databases and documents), or other information or material that is needed by the OIG to accomplish its mission.”
Significantly, Jackson’s e-mail did not resolve related issues covered by prior gag orders, including:
- Whether EPA staff may respond to requests from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), congressional investigators or Members of Congress – or whether, as before, EPA staff must obtain management permission in order to respond;
- Whether EPA employees who do contact the Inspector General or other official investigators will be protected from retaliation. EPA has no “zero tolerance” policy against whistleblower reprisals but does have an extensive history of whistleblower complaints; and
- Whether and under what circumstances EPA employees may speak with media representatives.
In an April 23, 2009 message proclaiming a policy of transparency, Jackson also dodged these issues:
“The Office of Public Affairs plays a central role in shaping the Agency’s communications with the public. OPA will be providing further guidance on how our programs and regions should coordinate with it on the preparation of messaging materials and interactions with the press.”
“It shows how low EPA had sunk that the Administrator must signal as a policy change that employees will now cooperate with their own Inspector General,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Jackson’s own message acknowledged that any obstruction of OIG probes is already “against EPA policy, and may be in violation of federal law.” “Unfortunately, the new policy appears to be that EPA employees will be only half-gagged.”
PEER has been publicly pushing for larger strides toward openness in the form of safeguards for scientific integrity, clear rules to secure the right of employees to publish without censorship, as well as allowing open communication with Congress and the press, among other changes.
One small area of progress has been open meeting calendars. In January, PEER urged Administrator Jackson to post her calendar on the agency website, citing her previous claims of executive privilege when she ran the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in shielding her calendars from public records requests. Jackson now posts her calendar but the entries rarely disclose which individuals she met with or the topics discussed.
“EPA still has not decided whether it is going to be wholly transparent or remain partially opaque,” Ruch added. “The illusion of transparency is arguably worse than naked suppression.”