For Immediate Release: Mar 11, 2019
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

BATTLE ROYALE HEARING ROILS CHEMICAL SAFETY BOARD

Current and Former Board Chairs, Members, and Staff Testify Against Each Other


Washington, DC — This week, an unprecedented slugfest will play out inside a small but important federal agency at a hearing into whether its Managing Director was illegally fired. Starting this Thursday, the hearing will detail the role politics can play in removing civil servants and determine whether simply doing one’s job can be transformed after the fact into a firing offense.

This past June, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) terminated its Managing Director, Dr. Daniel Horowitz, after leaving him on administrative leave, awaiting a decision, for more than three years. Former Board Chair Vanessa Sutherland delayed until the night before she resigned to become a lawyer for Norfolk Southern Corp., leaving a cryptic removal decision.

Represented by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Dr. Horowitz is challenging his removal before the civil service court, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). In this case, CSB will bear the burden of proving that its action against Dr. Horowitz was justified. The hearing will feature an unusual cavalcade of current and former CSB figures, including –

  • Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, the former CSB Chair who supervised Dr. Horowitz during the entire period in question. He will testify that all the activities were at his direction and with his approval;
  • Current Board Member Manuel Ehrlich who witnessed many of the events and disputed the merits of the allegations in a December 2015 affidavit. Mr. Ehrlich was not interviewed as part of the CSB investigation, however; and
  • Several current and former CSB senior staff who worked with Dr. Horowitz for years and will vouch for Dr. Horowitz’s integrity and accomplishments as Managing Director.

Listed witnesses for the agency include two current Board members as well as current and former staff. Significantly, Dr. Horowitz was charged with no specific act of misconduct nor any violation of law, regulation, or policy. Instead, the basis for his removal was allegations of “conduct unbecoming a federal employee” relating to a handful of management decisions, some dating back to 2011.

“PEER is representing Dr. Horowitz because he consistently tried to act in the public interest amidst a political maelstrom,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to pressure from Republican members of Congress to remove Horowitz. “This case will test the strength of the merit system against political interference and stale claims by disgruntled employees.”

Since Dr. Horowitz was placed on administrative leave back in June 2015, the level and scope of CSB industrial accident investigations has shriveled. At the same time, its unresolved case backlog has increased while the number of CSB investigators has shrunken by more than half. At this moment, the CSB has gone one of the longest periods in its history without deploying investigators to an accident, with its last new case opened in May 2018.

A recent Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by PEER exposed internal CSB staff survey results from early 2018 – concealed from CSB’s own personnel – that showed morale cratering after Horowitz’s departure, with one typical staff comment reading, “the [agency’s] level of disregard for employee opinion and morale is obscene.” In 2018, CSB line staff also voted to unionize for the first time in its history.

“Whatever influence CSB once had in improving chemical safety in the U.S. has been neutered,” added Ruch. “Like our aging public infrastructure, America’s industrial base is increasingly vulnerable to accidents and catastrophic failures with no federal watchdog left on duty.”

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See turmoil embroiling the CSB

View concerns from CSB investigators

Look at vulnerability of our industrial infrastructure