Wheeler memo: EPA won’t tolerate ‘retaliation’ against whistleblowers

As the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General continues its work on probes tied to Scott Pruitt’s tenure as EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, the acting head of the agency, has called on employees to cooperate with the oversight office’s work.

In an all-staff Wednesday morning email obtained by Federal News Radio, Wheeler, a former EPA career employee, urged the workforce to assist its IG office in identifying fraud, waste and abuse within the agency.

“One of the ways we ensure accountability deserving of the public’s trust is through the review and oversight carried out by the OIG. This important work enables us all to be more effective in achieving the agency’s mission with the resources and authorities provided by Congress,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler spent less than three months serving as the agency’s deputy administrator before Pruitt resigned in July, amid bipartisan concern over more than a dozen ethics scandals.

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A week after Pruitt’s resignation, the EPA OIG said it would continue its work on five audits it had opened during his tenure, and that it would plan to complete three reports this month.

Those audits will take a look at Pruitt’s spending on official travel, including several first-class flights,  his spending on 24/7 security and reports that awarded large bonuses to two close aides through a provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act.

As an added measure, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced legislation last month that would ensure the IG’s audits would go forward as planned, and would suspend proposed rules approved by Pruitt until the OIG completes its reports.

On Monday, the OIG released a related report on Law Enforcement Availability Pay (LEAP), premium pay awarded to agency criminal investigators assigned unscheduled duty beyond their regular 40-hour workweek.

“This internal control review was initiated based on concerns raised in the OIG’s audit of the EPA Administrator’s Protective Service Detail, which is currently underway. That audit identified compliance issues related to the recording and monitoring of LEAP hours by EPA Protective Service Detail employees,” the OIG wrote.

The report found EPA criminal investigators in the OIG’s Office of Investigations properly recorded LEAP hours and complied with federal requirements and IG office policies.

Wheeler reminded EPA employees in his memo they’re not required to seek permission from their managers before reporting an issue to the IG’s office.

“Please be aware that retaliation against any person who makes reports to the OIG, or who participates in an OIG investigation, is prohibited and will not be tolerated,” he said.

Wheeler’s warning against whistleblower retaliation comes a week after Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and other officials spoke out against retaliation at a National Whistleblower Day event. 

“Each employee taking the responsibility to report activity to the OIG which appears wasteful or illegal is one of the most important and successful means the OIG has for identifying and stopping wrongdoing,” he said.

During the course of the OIG’s audits, Wheeler called on EPA management to meet with IG staff and help provide information when need.

“This interaction will help avoid misunderstandings, increase transparency and result in accurate and helpful ways for the agency to accomplish its mission. EPA management and staff are also expected to respond accordingly and fulfill agreed-upon commitments in response to OIG reports and recommendations,” he said.