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EPA IG: Top official illegally blocked interference probe

Administrator's chief of staff refused to provide information sought by the agency's Office of Inspector General. The agency said the action was within the law

EPA has “significant gaps in cybersecurity capabilities” according to an Office of Management and Budget report. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
EPA has “significant gaps in cybersecurity capabilities” according to an Office of Management and Budget report. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The EPA Administrator’s chief of staff illegally blocked an inspector general’s investigation into whether he interfered with a private citizen’s testimony before Congress, the agency’s internal watchdog said Tuesday.

In a response appended to the IG’s report, the agency disputed any wrongdoing by the staff chief, Ryan Jackson, contending that he reviewed the individual’s testimony in a manner “consistent” with past practices. An agency spokeswoman called the report “hyperbolic.”

Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee asked the inspector general in 2017 to investigate whether Jackson, who was chief of staff to then-administrator Scott Pruitt, pressured the chairwoman of EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, Deborah Swackhamer, to stick to “talking points” about her panel ahead of a hearing. Swackhamer became chairwoman under the Obama administration and was removed from the board months after the hearing. 

The inspector general confirmed Jackson, who now serves as chief of staff to Administrator Andrew Wheeler, got an advance copy of the witness’ embargoed opening statement. But it was unable to complete its investigation because Jackson declined to say where he got it, which violated the 1978 Inspector General Act, the watchdog said. 

Congress’ move

Jeffrey Lagda, a spokesman for the inspector general, told CQ Roll Call there is no specific enforcement mechanism for Jackson’s alleged violation but Congress historically has provided oversight when government officials refuse to cooperate with inspector general investigations. “It is now up to Congress to act if it so chooses,” Lagda said.

In its memo to the IG, the EPA noted that its legal counsel has given Jackson and other staff accurate guidance on when they must cooperate with inspector general investigations.

“While OIG may not concur with this legal opinion, failing to refer to it leaves the impression that the Agency has no basis for this position, which could mislead the public and Congress when the [report] becomes public.“ 

EPA spokeswoman Molly Block told CQ Roll Call in an email that the inspector general’s assessment was “hyperbolic” and “wholly undermines the cooperative and iterative relationship that EPA has shared with its OIG.”

“While the OIG may not agree with this legal opinion, it is irresponsible to imply that the Agency, or employees of the Agency, have violated the [law],” Block said.

Jackson declined to answer questions in an Oct. 3 interview about where he got Swackhamer’s remarks, the report stated. After investigators made multiple attempts to follow up with him for additional information, the report said he wrote in an Oct. 21 email, “I am not going to involve others or point fingers … whoever agrees or not … Welcome to Washington.”

The report is the latest development in a fight between EPA officials and the inspector general, which claimed that agency staff were given permission to refuse its requests for information. 

Acting Inspector General Charles J. Sheehan on Oct. 29 sent Wheeler a “seven day letter” asserting the “particularly serious or flagrant problem” with the chief of staff’s refusals. The agency did not subsequently force Jackson to cooperate with the investigation. 

The EPA also released a Nov. 5 memo from its general counsel, Matthew Leopold, that said Wheeler had the authority to decide “what constitutes an adequate accommodation by the Agency of an OIG request in so far as it is practicable.” The watchdog released a response Nov. 7 asserting that if Leopold’s interpretation of the law was fully implemented, the statute giving authority to agency inspectors general would be “hollowed out.” 

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