Congress slams EPA for treatment of ‘serial sexual harasser’

Is the EPA turning a blind eye to sexual harassment and pornography in the in the office? Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee gave the impression that they thought so at a hearing Thursday. The portrait painted by Democrats and Republicans alike was one of EPA senior leaders unwilling to ask tough personnel questions, leading to an environment in which some employees are swiftly disciplined while others are allowed to rise in the ranks while committing egregious acts. “This pattern of paid administrative leave followed by retirement with full benefits is totally and wholly unacceptable. It rewards bad behavior and leaves taxpayers footing the bill,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the committee chairman. The inspector general’s office contends that EPA senior leaders withheld information about a former high-ranking official accused of sexually harassing 17 women, including colleagues, over the course of a decade. In 2014, the inspector general received a tip that Peter Jutro, then the acting associate administrator for the agency’s Office of Homeland Security, had sexually harassed a Smithsonian Institution intern. Upon launching the investigation, the IG learned of the 16 other women who said that Jutro had inappropriately touched them, made lew comments or taken photographs of them. Only then did the IG learn that Lisa Feldt, then the EPA’s associate deputy administrator, had raised concerns about Jutro to other agency leaders while vetting Jutro for his position. Those officials did nothing. Deputy Chief of Staff John Reeder was one of those with whom Feldt spoke. He admitted to lawmakers that he felt “conflicted” about how he should act upon the allegations. Reeder did not attempt to contact Jutro’s immediate supervisor, although he reached out to senior officials in Jutro’s office. “I did assume that senior folks in that office would be informed of any serious misconduct,” he said. “I would be more explicit in that check if I had to do it again.” To Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who has asked federal employees to email him with their workplace complaints, Reeders’ comments were proof of a cultural problem at the EPA. “I’m finding more information about your agency than you are,” he told Reeder and Stanley Meiburg, the EPA acting deputy administrator. “There’s a culture where they don’t feel comfortable talking to you.” Jutro was placed on paid administrative leave until he retired earlier this year without facing discipline, as did another employee who admitted to watching hours of pornography at work. A third employee caught with pornography is fighting his dismissal. If the EPA acts slowly, it’s because the agency doesn’t want to interfere with criminal investigations or make hasty decisions that employees could challenge in court, said Meiburg. He acted surprised when Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) pointed out that the Merit Systems Protection Board, to which employees may appeal personnel decisions, has sided with agencies that have fired employees based only on their admissions of wrongdoing. “The Board has sustained adverse actions (including removal) when an employee’s admission was the sole evidence presented by the agency to support its charge,” wrote Susan Tsui Grundmann, the board chairman, in a letter that Cummings waived. “If I were watching this on C-SPAN, I’d be disgusted,” Cummings told Meiburg. “We are so much better than this. If you can’t do the job, you’ve got to let someone else get in there and do it because a lot of people are depending on government’s functioning properly.” EPA employees are the ones most harmed by the agency’s failure to act, Cummings said. “They just want to come to work, do their job, give their blood, sweat and tears and then go home.  But then their morale gets destroyed when they see these people coming back to work,” he said. “Give me a break. This is crazy. We are better than this.” Some committee members suggested they would support legislation forcing the agency to collaborate more closely with its inspector general on matters of employee conduct. Rep. Mark Walberg said he would introduce an “upgraded” version of a bill he sponsored last year to make it easier for agencies to fire senior executives. In Congressional testimony last year, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said she would welcome a faster way to investigate and discipline bad actors within the workforce. Her remarks angered the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many EPA workers. The union contended that there was nothing wrong with current personnel procedures. Rather, it said, the EPA was failing to hold its managers accountable for their behavior. Meiburg stopped short of making a similar endorsement. But he said the EPA would work more closely with the inspector general and Justice Department on cases of employee misconduct. He told Cummings that he would update the committee by the end of June. Cummings responded, “Make it the end of May. To me, that’s too long.”    

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