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EPA Orders Staff Not to Answer Watchdog

July 29, 2008

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency has told its staff not to answer questions from the agency’s internal watchdog, news reporters or the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, according an internal memo that an environmental group released Monday.

The June 16 memo to the staff of the EPA’s enforcement division told them that if they’re contacted by the EPA inspector general’s office, an independent internal watchdog that monitors the agency, or by the Government Accountability Office, the investigators who work for Congress, they’re to forward the call or e-mail to a designated person.

“Please do not respond to questions or make any statements,” it adds. The memo sets down the same procedure, with different contact people, for queries from reporters.

EPA spokeswoman Roxanne Smith wouldn’t say whether any specific incident triggered the memo but said it was consistent with existing policies and intended to coordinate responses.

John Walke, a former EPA air pollution attorney, said the inspector general’s office ordinarily has unfettered access to agency employees so they can speak candidly and anonymously.

The memo appeared as the Senate Environment and Judiciary committees are trying to get EPA to release information about its global warming policies and after EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson declined to testify this week before the two committees.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said last week that he was instructing the EPA inspector general’s office to investigate whether there was any wrongdoing in failing to cooperate with Congress.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility obtained the memo and released it to reporters.

“The intent was to control any unscripted release of information to an investigator or to a reporter,” said Jeff Ruch, the director of the environmental group. “We’re not sure what the specific triggering event was, but there’s so much chum in the water that they were certainly biting at something.”

The EPA’s Smith said that Robbi Farrell, the chief of staff of the enforcement division, sent the memo to managers in her office “to ensure consistency and coordination” among staffers who respond to the inspector general and the congressional investigators. It will help with “tracking and record-keeping obligations,” Smith said in a statement.

Smith also said the procedure was developed in part as a response to a 2007 inspector general report about follow-ups on audits at EPA. That report, however, didn’t critique EPA staff members’ contacts with reporters and investigators.

“There is nothing in the procedure that restricts conversation between enforcement staff, the press, GAO and the IG and the procedure is consistent with existing policies,” Smith’s statement said.

But Walke, who worked for the EPA as an attorney from 1997 to 2000 and now works for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “If the agency has advance notice of who they want to talk to and about what, it allows them to do spin control and manage the damage fallout.”

The EPA inspector general’s office conducts audits, evaluations and investigations of the EPA and its contractors “to promote economy and efficiency and to prevent and detect fraud, waste and abuse,” its Web site says.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has criticized Johnson for not testifying about alleged White House interference with the EPA. Boxer has called on Johnson to release a finding the EPA prepared and sent to the White House in December that found global warming endangers the public welfare.

“Stephen Johnson is turning the EPA into a secretive, dangerous ally of polluters, instead of a leader in the effort to protect the health and safety of the American people,” Boxer said in a statement Monday in response to reports about the memo.




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