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Whistleblower Seeks Restoration of Independent EPA Ombudsman

WASHINGTON, DC, January 8, 2008 (ENS) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is resisting a legal bid to re-create its internal independent watchdog, according to filings posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, a national association of workers in natural resources agencies.

At the time it was disbanded in 2002, the EPA’s National Ombudsman Office was investigating the agency’s failures after the World Trade Center collapse and was conducting high-profile hearings into malfeasance at several Superfund cleanups across the nation.

The current attempt to force the EPA to reconstitute the Ombudsman Office and allow it to complete its investigations into the World Trade Center attacks originates in a whistleblower complaint filed by Hugh Kaufman.

Kaufman served as the chief investigator for the National Ombudsman Office from 1997 until its end in 2002 on the orders of then-EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman following the World Trade Center attack.

Whitman and the EPA are now defendants in a civil suit brought by World Trade Center environmental victims for damages stemming from what they claim were intentional false statements made by EPA personnel that the air was safe to breathe.

Kaufman’s complaint is that the Ombudsman Office and his job were eliminated and he was involuntarily transferred for uncovering embarrassing evidence about EPA misconduct, in violation of whistleblower anti-retaliation provisions of federal environmental laws.

According to case documents, one reason the EPA cites for disbanding the office was Bush administration policy to have agencies speak with “one voice.”

After an initial investigation, the U.S. Labor Department ruled in Kaufman’s favor and found EPA’s removal of his duties was in reprisal for his performing a “too effective job.”

The EPA appealed, and the complaint is now slated for a hearing before Labor Department administrative law judge Thomas Burke in Washington, D.C. After forcing the agency to provide new documents in the case, Kaufman filed a motion to amend his complaint to more fully address the illegal retaliation. EPA vehemently opposes that motion on the grounds that amending the complaint raises issues which create “potential prejudice for the Agency.”

“EPA’s actions are truly Orwellian,” said Regina Markey who is the lead attorney representing Kaufman. “Instead of protecting America’s communities, the EPA steamrolled the one beacon of accountability that the public trusted to ensure they get the public health protection mandated by Congress. Putting Hugh back on the job is our number one priority.”

During its tenure, the EPA Ombudsman’s Office inspired several congressional attempts to write law that would insulate the office “against precisely the sort of interference which ultimately did it in,” PEER said.

The Office drew strong bi-partisan support largely because its investigations uncovered botched cleanups in sites ranging from Coeur D’Alene, Idaho to Throop, Pennsylvania to Tarpon Springs, Florida, said PEER.

“If ever an agency needed an independent ombudsman, it is the EPA now,” said PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who is assisting in the Kaufman case. “Right now, short of a lawsuit there is no avenue for citizens to pursue a fair and objective review of EPA actions.”

After the National Ombudsman was eliminated, the EPA Office of Inspector General, OIG, absorbed a limited “ombudsman” role that lacked not only its prior primary functions but also the independence that is the hallmark of a true ombudsman.

Shortly afterwards, the OIG itself became the target of the “one voice” policies. For the past two years, the OIG has been without a leader and has deemphasized pollution probes in order to pursue efforts furthering President George W. Bush’s Management Agenda.

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