EPA Timidly Tiptoes Towards Transparency

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

EPA Timidly Tiptoes Towards Transparency

WASHINGTON - The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered
her staff to cooperate with investigators from its Office of Inspector
General, according to an all-employee e-mail released today by Public
Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This new directive
reverses a gag order that had been issued last year but leaves
unanswered questions about access by congressional investigators, the
media and the public.

The August 7, 2009 e-mail by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson
partially rescinds a June 16, 2008 e-mail distributed throughout EPA's
Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in which managers were
admonished to "remind your staff" that they should "not respond to
questions or make any statements" if contacted by congressional
investigators, reporters or its Office of Inspector General (OIG)
without prior approval. In the new order, Jackson states:

"It is imperative that, upon request, Agency personnel provide OIG
auditors, evaluators and investigators with full and unrestricted
access to personnel, facilities, records (including, but not limited
to, reports, databases and documents), or other information or material
that is needed by the OIG to accomplish its mission."

Significantly, Jackson's e-mail did not resolve related issues covered by prior gag orders, including:

  • Whether EPA staff may respond to requests from the
    Government Accountability Office (GAO), congressional investigators or
    Members of Congress - or whether, as before, EPA staff must obtain
    management permission in order to respond;
  • Whether EPA
    employees who do contact the Inspector General or other official
    investigators will be protected from retaliation. EPA has no "zero
    tolerance" policy against whistleblower reprisals but does have an
    extensive history of whistleblower complaints; and
  • Whether and under what circumstances EPA employees may speak with media representatives.

In an April 23, 2009 message proclaiming a policy of transparency, Jackson also dodged these issues:

"The Office of Public Affairs plays a central role in shaping the
Agency's communications with the public. OPA will be providing further
guidance on how our programs and regions should coordinate with it on
the preparation of messaging materials and interactions with the press."

"It shows how low EPA had sunk that the Administrator must signal as
a policy change that employees will now cooperate with their own
Inspector General," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting
that Jackson's own message acknowledged that any obstruction of OIG
probes is already "against EPA policy, and may be in violation of
federal law." "Unfortunately, the new policy appears to be that EPA
employees will be only half-gagged."

PEER has been publicly pushing for larger strides toward openness in
the form of safeguards for scientific integrity, clear rules to secure
the right of employees to publish without censorship, as well as
allowing open communication with Congress and the press, among other
changes.

One small area of progress has been open meeting calendars. In
January, PEER urged Administrator Jackson to post her calendar on the
agency website, citing her previous claims of executive privilege when
she ran the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in
shielding her calendars from public records requests. Jackson now posts
her calendar but the entries rarely disclose which individuals she met
with or the topics discussed.

"EPA still has not decided whether it is going to be wholly
transparent or remain partially opaque," Ruch added. "The illusion of
transparency is arguably worse than naked suppression."

Read the Lisa Jackson message on cooperating with the IG

See the previous gag order which is rescinded in part

View Lisa Jackson memo on transparency

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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