Chaffetz: MSPB reinstated EPA employee with child porn on government computer

The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s gotten tough on employee misconduct and administrative leave abuse, but the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says the agency still doesn’t do enough to fire its worst offenders.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the committee, told acting EPA Deputy Administrator Stanley Meiburg that the agency has one of the worst records in government when it comes to dealing with employees convicted of serious crimes.

“The EPA is one of the most toxic places in the federal government to work, and if you don’t get rid of the toxicity of the employees there at the EPA, we’re doing a great disservice to this country,” Chaffetz said Wednesday. “Most of them are good, hard-working, patriotic people. They care, they work hard, but you have some bad apples at the EPA, and they’re not being dealt with.”

In his testimony, Patrick Sullivan, the assistant IG for investigations at EPA, said his biweekly summits with Meiburg on employee misconduct cases, put into effect this February, should be held up as a best practice in government.

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Committee members, however, said the EPA’s prior track record with handling employee misconduct did not give them confidence the agency could fire offending workers in the future.

Chaffetz, for example, blasted the Merit Systems Protection Board for overturning the termination of a field office employee who kept child pornography on his agency computer. Sullivan told the committee that the employee was a registered sex offender.

EPA fired the employee in January 2014, but MSPB ordered that he be reinstated. The employee returned to work in September 2014, but received a $55,000 settlement from the EPA to leave the agency.

“How do you lose that case?” Chaffetz asked. “How do we need to change the Merit Systems Protection Board? Because what’s not happening is we’re not protecting the American people and the taxpayers, and we’re not protecting the employees that have to sit by this freak of a pervert.”

Meiburg responded that in this particular case, MSPB found the “basis for the removal was not sustained.”

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) highlighted one case in which a GS-12 employee in Atlanta sold agency cameras and video equipment worth $3,000 to a pawnshop in 2012, but only received a 30-day suspension.

“It’s astonishing to me that a 30-days suspension is all that someone gets for even pleading guilty of felony theft. We’ve got the taxpayers on the hook for this type of behavior,” Hice said.

Meiburg, who at the time was the regional director who determined the punishment on this case, told Hice that his response appropriate.

“What the employee did was wrong, and she needed to be held accountable for doing something wrong,” Meiburg said. “In any individual case, there are many factors that the deciding official uses … in deciding what an appropriate penalty would be, and I am obligated by law to consider all of those in reaching a decision on a penalty.”

Sullivan told the committee that EPA currently has 90 pending employee misconduct cases. Of those, the Office of the Inspector General has already submitted its investigation reports to the agency on 14 cases.

However, Sullivan said employee misconduct cases only constitute 40 percent of the OIG’s workload. In addition, the watchdog office has 150 ongoing cases — 64 percent of those being fraud cases, but also include outside theft and assault cases.

In the past five years, the OIG has had a 20 percent reduction in its workforce. The office currently has 289 staff members, but had 360 five years ago.

“I have seen no evidence of any of my agents cutting corners. … I’m concerned that cases take way too much time to come to conclusion,” Sullivan said. “We are constantly juggling, and obviously we prioritize every day almost like an emergency room, you triage. We investigate and handle the most important cases first, but you still have to take care of the other cases that are in the pipeline.”

The Official Personnel File Enhancement Act, introduced by Chaffetz in January, would require agencies to permanently mark an employee’s personnel record file if they were the subject of a personnel investigation that determined wrongdoing, but resigned before the conclusion of the case.

“I hope this helps so that these employees cannot just toggle from one agency to the other without having their information shared,” Chaffetz said during Wednesday’s hearing. The bill passed the House in April.

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