Gag Order Imposed on U.S. EPA Staff

WASHINGTON, DC, July 28, 2008 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is ordering its staff to "not respond to questions or make any statements" if contacted by congressional investigators, reporters or its own Office of Inspector General, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.

"The order reinforces a growing bunker mentality within an EPA that is the subject of a growing number of probes into political interference with agency operations," according to PEER, a service organization assisting federal and state public employees in natural resources agencies.

In a June 16, 2008 e-mail distributed throughout EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, managers were asked to "remind your staff" to comply with "these important procedures."

These procedures forbid staff from speaking with any reporters or representatives of the Government Accountability Office or the EPA Inspector General. If contacted, EPA employees are not supposed to say anything but are to immediately refer the person to a designated public affairs official.

"Inside the current EPA, candor has become the cardinal sin," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, an attorney. Ruch noted that while "this directive is of questionable legality, an agency specialist risks discipline or even termination for disregarding a direct order."

"The clear intention behind this move is to chill the cubicles by suppressing any uncontrolled release of information," said Ruch.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, today commented on the EPA e-mail to staff concerning procedures for responding to inquiries, saying, "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."

By way of justification, EPA's Office of Public Affairs defends the order as "standard operating procedures" to promote efficiency and consistency in responding to official investigations.

That office also contends this "procedure was developed in part to respond to a recent IG report" entitled "EPA Can Improve its Oversight of Audit Followup" issued in May 2007.

That cited Inspector General's report, however, makes no such recommendation and is primarily about how EPA lacks an accountability system for correcting admitted deficiencies identified in previous IG audits.

The cited audit has absolutely nothing to do with reporters or the Government Accountability Office, GAO, which is the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress.

An additional concern is that the directive may illegally obstruct IG or GAO investigations, Ruch said.

Although the EPA Public Affairs claims that the IG "signed off on" the gag order it has not offered written confirmation of that approval. PEER's inquiry to the EPA Inspector General's General Counsel as to the propriety of this directive has gone unanswered.

Currently, the EPA Inspector General position is vacant.

Today, EPA is the target of intense congressional scrutiny, including attempts to subpoena agency files.

Following increasingly contentious hearings, Administrator Johnson has refused to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but gave no reasons for his refusal.

On Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont canceled a hearing scheduled for July 30 at which Johnson was invited to present testimony about the EPA's refusal to provide Congress with documents related to the public health risks of global warming.

Leahy said he called the hearing after an investigation in the Environment and Public Works Committee "uncovered what appears to be an effort by the Bush-Cheney administration to shield the truth about the effects of global warming from Congress and the American people by interfering with scientific conclusions and regulatory decisions that Congress intended to be answered by the science experts at EPA."

"There are serious questions whether the White House improperly influenced EPA to deny California's request for a Clean Air Act waiver," Senator Leahy said. "This waiver would not only have allowed California to enforce tougher emissions standards, it would have allowed other states, including Vermont, to do the same."

"This is only the latest skirmish in what has come to be called the Bush-Cheney administration's war on science, in which powerful and well connected special interests get their way, at the expense of ordinary Americans," the senator said.

"I am disappointed that the Bush administration has again chosen secrecy over accountability," Leahy said. "They are preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from giving Congress information about its policies, and preventing us from learning what they are doing to enforce - or not enforce - vital laws meant to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe."

The Judiciary Committee chairman called Johnson's refusal to attend the hearing "yet another in a long line of examples of the Bush administration hiding behind a thick veil of secrecy."

By contrast, 25 years ago EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus proclaimed that, "When I recently appeared before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, I promised that EPA would operate 'in a fishbowl.' I said, 'We will attempt to communicate with everyone from the environmentalists to those we regulate and we will do so as openly as possible.'"

While this 1983 Ruckelshaus "fishbowl" policy was never rescinded, it no longer reflects agency practice.

"Ironically, EPA has brought a lot of these congressional hearings on itself by not being open," said Ruch, questioning the need for such secrecy at a public health agency.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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