Not very long ago, Washington's two top environmental cops got a verbal whipping from one of Capitol Hill's most intimidating members of Congress. At least one of the cops apparently has a short memory.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., called a hearing to grade the performance of John Martin and John Barden. Martin is the inspector general for the Environmental Protection Agency, and Barden is his chief investigator. Dingell took the occasion to chew them out in public for failure to more aggressively pursue reported fraud and abuse by companies that do hazardous waste cleanup for the EPA. The two should have taken that as a hint that Congress expected them to be more critical of the companies that work for the EPA. Barden has since taken a temporary job with an organization that represents the contractors he is supposed to be investigating. And the taxpayers are continuing to pay his $100,500 annual salary during this sabbatical.Through a special government exchange program, Barden will spend two years working for the research and education foundation of the American Consulting Engineers Council, a trade association with many members who work under contract for the EPA. In addition to the non-profit foundation, ACEC lobbies Congress for measures to benefit its members. Recently the group lobbied for a measure to limit the liability of those contractors when they work for the EPA. Barden is not the first EPA employee to come through this revolving door. The head of ACEC is a former top EPA official. Under the exchange program, the federal government continues to pay Barden's salary. Barden and Martin told our associate Scott Sleek that they see no problem with the new job because the research and education foundation is separate from the council's lobbying arm. And Barden thinks the experience will give him an inside look at how the private sector works.

We're just old-fashioned enough to think that a federal investigator shouldn't go to work for the people he is supposed to investigate simply so he can understand issues from their point of view.

Barden's trip through the revolving door isn't likely to help his credibility on Capitol Hill. Barden and Martin first caught our attention in 1988 when they took an expensive trip to a convention in Hong Kong and then came back and told their investigators to curtail investigative trips because the travel budget was low.

Last December they were summoned before Dingell, whose own staffers had reported that Martin had a weak record of riding herd on the EPA's biggest contractors - particularly the ones working on the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program. Dingell's staff also accused Martin's inspector general office of exaggerating the number of prosecutions that had resulted from their investigative work and for pursuing trivial matters instead of going after the big fish. EPA's top 25 contractors have jobs with the government worth $8.6 billion, and Dingell questioned whether that was money well spent. The General Accounting Office also issued a report critical of the way the inspector general monitored the contracts. "Audit backlogs and inadequate audit follow-ups are serious problems at EPA because they increase the vulnerability of EPA's contracting dollars to waste, fraud and abuse and make the job of cleaning up the environment that much harder," the GAO said.

Now we're supposed to believe that Barden will be a more vigilant investigator of the industry if he spends two years working in it.