WASHINGTON — An office run by President Barack Obama's political staff inside the EPA has blocked investigations by the independent inspector general's office by systematically refusing to share information, a top investigator told Congress Wednesday.
The assistant EPA inspector general for investigations, Patrick Sullivan, said the 10-person Office of Homeland Security within the agency has for years blocked the inspector general's office from information by citing national security concerns and compelling employees to sign non-disclosure agreements. Sullivan testified Wednesday before a House oversight committee about the activities of the little-known office within EPA.
"The Office of Homeland Security has invoked the term 'national security' as a mantra," Sullivan said. "The Office of Homeland Security does not have the authority to make such a call. It has no power whatsoever to tell the Office of Inspector General what it needs to know. It is actually the reverse."
In response, Deputy EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe said the agency's political appointees and their staffs don't "want to have a problem with the IG's access."
"That goal is paramount to us," said Perciasepe, adding that since Obama took office that EPA personnel had cooperated with more than 2,600 audits and investigations.
"The vast majority of work is done efficiently, appropriately and with good result," he said.
The turf battle between the two offices is the latest under the Obama administration to question the effective independence of the government's inspectors general, which are also political appointments but are expected to be outside of political influence.
Two weeks ago, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson put his department's former inspector general on administrative leave after senators said he was too cozy with senior DHS officials and improperly rewrote, delayed or classified some critical reports to accommodate Obama's political appointees.
Last year, the Defense Department's inspector general removed material from a draft report that concluded then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had improperly disclosed classified information about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden to a producer for the movie "Zero Dark Thirty."
The dispute between the inspector general's office and the EPA's homeland security office came to a head last year when Republicans in Congress investigated the agency's handling of John C. Beale, a former deputy assistant administrator. He pleaded guilty in federal court last fall to stealing $886,186 between 2000 and April 2013, falsely claiming he was working undercover for the CIA. The Beale case was initially investigated by the homeland security office months before the IG's office was made aware of it.
Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called the agency broken and said EPA leadership prevents the inspector general's office from doing its job. Issa also highlighted other cases of employee misconduct inside the agency, including one employee caught viewing pornography and another selling jewelry and weight loss pills out of her office. Those cases are under investigation by the IG.
"Until (the inspector general's office) is allowed to do their job to extent they are mandated we will never know more about John Beale and cases like that," Issa said.
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, characterized the issue as a "jurisdictional dispute." He said the IG's office, EPA senior leadership and the FBI are sitting down next week to work out a resolution.
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