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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

EPA Ombudsman

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth political observer Mark Hertsgaard talks with host Steve Curwood about EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman’s decision to move the office of the agency’s ombudsman, and how this has led to charges of conflict of interest for her.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman is being accused of muzzling the EPA's public advocate, known as the ombudsman. This is occurring at the very time the ombudsman is challenging an EPA decision that will save tens of millions of dollars for the company Citigroup. Citigroup is a principal investor in the firm where Administrator Whitman's husband works. Living on Earth's Political Observer Mark Hertsgaard joins me now.

Mark, let's look first at the issue of transferring oversight of the ombudsman to the inspector general's office at the EPA. Why is that controversial?

HERSTGAARD: Well, it's controversial, Steve, because you're talking about basically oil and water here. The ombudsman's office is a kind of public advocate complaints department. If you're a local citizen group or a local government and you can't get satisfaction out of dealing with the EPA bureaucracy directly, you can go to the ombudsman's office and say, “Here, can you help me get some closure on this?” The inspector general's office, on the other hand, is sort of like the internal policeman. The Commerce Department, the Agricultural Department, they all have one of these, and their job is to, sort of, make the trains run on time inside the department. So, as I say, it's a bit oil and water, and that's part of the concern of the ombudsmen, that they will be muzzled, under this new arrangement.

CURWOOD: But Administrator Whitman says that this move is specifically geared to give the ombudsman greater independence. There was a press release that came out in November, in which Administrator Whitman quotes the General Accounting Office as saying that the ombudsman does need more independence, and the Administrator says that the office will get it, under the Inspector General.

HERSTGAARD: That's true, Steve. That's exactly what she said in that press release, and I spoke with Joe Martyak in her press department, and he argues that, “Look, right now, the ombudsman reports to a deputy administrator in the EPA who reports to the EPA administrator. Under our proposed reassignment, moving him to the inspector general, he will have more independence, because the inspector general does not answer to the EPA boss, the inspector general answers to Congress.” And, Mr. Martyak argues that the ombudsman's office will, therefore, get greater staff resources, greater independence, and will in general be more effective.

That is not, I hasten to add, the view of the ombudsman himself, Bob Martin, or of his chief investigator, Hugh Kaufman, we spoke with. Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Martin, in fact, filed a suit January 10th against this move, against Administrator Whitman, complaining that this will hinder their independence. And Kaufman says, “Look, right now we have a boss, but that boss gives us free leeway to investigate what we like. Under the reassignment, we'll have to get permission for every investigation that we want, from the inspector general.” And the problem with that is that the ombudsman has frequently tangled with the inspector general's office, going back as far as the early eighties, when Mr. Kaufman's whistle-blowing was what led to the resignation of Ronald Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency Chief, Ann Gorsuch, and Rita Lavelle, the Superfund administrator.

In their lawsuit, Martin and Kaufman complain that last year the inspector general's office obstructed their investigation of a case in Pennsylvania, and just last week, the ombudsman has begun an investigation of the inspector general's office itself. Here's what Hugh Kaufman told us about that.

KAUFMAN: Right now, we are investigating the EPA inspector general doing a cover-up in Denver, Colorado, on air pollution in people's homes. That investigation will be closed down once we go to the inspector general's office, because we can't investigate the inspector general.

CURWOOD: Mark, tell me, what has been the reaction in Washington to this proposed reassignment of the ombudsman at the EPA?

HERSTGAARD: Well, there's been quite a lot of negative reaction, Steve, and this is coming from Republicans and Democrats alike. In the House of Representatives a bi-partisan group wrote to Mrs. Whitman before Christmas and urged her not to go ahead with this until they had a chance to hold hearings.

But probably the most significant opposition has come from Wayne Allard, the Republican senator from Colorado. He originally approved Mrs. Whitman's move and now has come out against it after talking with her and asking further questions about the ombudsman's independence. We spoke with Senator Allard this week, and here's what he had to say.

ALLARD: Where they happen to stick him in the bureaucracy is fine, as long as they maintain their independence. She's decided to put it in the inspector general's office. The way I understand the way it's set up right now is that it's set up in a way that he does not maintain his independence.

HERSTGAARD: You should know, Steve, that Allard has a particular interest in the ombudsman's fate because the ombudsman has played such a crucial role in the Superfund clean-up investigation in his home state of Colorado.

CURWOOD: Now, this is the Shattuck Superfund site there, in Denver. I gather, in that case, some radioactive waste was left in a residential neighborhood, and citizens complained for years to get it removed. How was it that the EPA ombudsman got involved with that case?

HERSTGAARD: Senator Allard said that he was the one who put the citizens in touch with the ombudsman, precisely because the citizens were getting the cold shoulder from the rest of EPA The ombudsman was, literally, the first one at the EPA who listened to these citizens, and has now got a more proper clean-up under way.

What's at issue now is who pays for that clean-up. And the current settlement between EPA and Citigroup, which owns the Shattuck site, limits Citigroup's liability to 7.2 million dollars. EPA's own scientists say that the clean-up will cost at least 22 million dollars, and the taxpayers would cover the difference. The ombudsman's office says that, “Look, if you really want to properly clean that site and clean up both the soil and the groundwater, it's a hundred-million-dollar job.” That's why they are trying to challenge this agreement that limits Citigroup's liability to a mere 7.2 million dollars.

CURWOOD: Mark, tell me, now, where do the questions of conflict of interest on the part of Administrator Whitman come into this story?

HERSTGAARD: The very first firm that's listed on Administrator Whitman's public finance disclosure forms is Citigroup, and that's because she and her husband own as much as a quarter of a million dollars of stock there. Her husband worked for Citigroup for 15 years, until 1987, and now is a managing partner in a venture capital firm that spun off from Citigroup about five years ago, Sycamore Ventures. And Citigroup remains a principal investor, probably the principal investor. So, what you've got is an EPA decision, on the Shattuck case, that will clearly have a substantial impact on Citigroup's finances--as much as 93 million dollars.

CURWOOD: How does the administrator respond to this?

HERSTGAARD: She declined our repeated requests for interviews, and I have to say that her story on this has changed over time. Originally, her spokesman said, last year, that she doesn't have to recuse herself because she's not directly involved in these kinds of decisions. Then, later I was told by a spokesman that she has recused herself, but the spokesman couldn't produce the recusal form. This week, though, we did speak to her main Press Secretary, Joe Martyak, and here's what he told us.

MARTYAK: The Administrator, of course, is concerned that these kind of accusations are being raised, because they're totally unfounded. The facts simply aren't there. The conflict of interest that's being proposed here simply doesn't exist, because she's been upfront about what her involvement is with Citigroup. She has not been involved in the decision making process, and the terms of the settlement that's been reached were reached under the previous administration and before she was even nominated.

CURWOOD: So, what does all this add up to now, Mark?

HERSTGAARD: I'd say, Steve, that there's a lot of questions, and maybe this lawsuit that Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Martin and the ombudsman's staff are making against Mrs. Whitman will yield some of that information that we need. What is plain is that she is reassigning the ombudsman at the very time that the ombudsman is challenging an EPA decision in Colorado that could mean up to 93-million-dollars savings for Citigroup, a firm that she has had and admits to having had a very long and close relationship with through her husband. And you know what they say about conflicts of interest: it's not so much the conflict itself as the appearance of a conflict, and there certainly does appear to be a potential conflict of interest here.

CURWOOD: Mark Herstgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks Mark.

HERSTGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



The Project On Government Oversight

EPA Ombudsman

For Mark Hertsgaard's investigative piece on Christie Todd Whitman in Salon.com, click here.">


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