How A Leading Democrat Wreaked Havoc On EPA Science

David Lewis Research Director, Focus For Health Foundation
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In 1991, when Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) chaired a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, EPA was bent on tightening clean air standards. Dingell, who was associated with the UAW and represented a district populated with autoworkers, opposed EPA’s efforts.

To get tough on EPA, Dingell turned to EPA Inspector General John C. Martin for help. Martin agreed to investigate grants and contracts issued by EPA’s Office of Research & Development (ORD). Dingell hoped the investigations would spark oversight hearings, prosecutions and bad press for EPA.

EPA scientists at ORD were sitting ducks. They were poorly trained concerning rules governing federal assistance agreements. And, to make matters worse, EPA headquarters had often provided inconsistent, even contradictory, guidance.

In order to directly support Dingell’s objectives, Martin revised his agents’ performance standards. At least 25% of their cases had to result in prosecutions to obtain a satisfactory performance rating. He also awarded extra points for cases involving high-ranking officials that drew national media attention.

My outspoken objections to Dingell and Martin upending ORD were widely covered by the Washington Post, Science magazine and others. Nevertheless, EPA Administrator Carol Browner looked the other way as Martin teamed up with the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute unsuspecting EPA managers. One lab director targeted in Florida died of a heart attack.

With ORD’s managers paralyzed by fear of prosecution, bureaucratic gridlock spread throughout the organization. Scientists, for example, were instructed to rewrite research grants from previous fiscal years. Many millions of dollars in research grants awarded in the past, which EPA had closed out, had to be updated to reflect the exact amounts each grantee had spent, to the penny.

It’s not uncommon for academic institutions to have some spare change leftover when their grants expire. Apparently, professors who teach calculus can’t figure out how to spend exactly $250,000.00.

While ORD was drowning in a sea of paperwork, Vice President Al Gore appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, bragging about his accomplishments in reducing government red tape. I forwarded Mr. Gore several examples of EPA memos directing scientists to rewrite grants from previous federal budgets to account for, in one case, eight cents, and in another, 12 cents.

I suggested that he lobby his fellow Democrats on the Hill to introduce and pass a “Gum Ball Act.” Its purpose would be to allow federal grantees to buy gum balls with any stray pennies left over when their grants expire. To my surprise, Gore had one of his staff members call me, and he shut down the grant revision process.

Eventually, federal administrative law judges tossed out all of the cases Martin had engineered at the behest of Chairman Dingell. Even so, many of ORD’s most seasoned scientists no longer wished to work at EPA, and opted for early retirement.

In 1996, I documented the fallout from Dingell’s assault on ORD in a Nature commentary, “EPA Science: Casualty of election politics.” The Atlanta Constitution also reported on Martin’s misguided investigations in an article titled: “Cleared Chemist’s Victory Leaves Bitter Taste.” Martin resigned shortly after learning from me that Reader’s Digest was about to publish a similar article, titled “Weird Science at the EPA.”

Ironically, Martin’s son, John Martin, Jr., is currently conducting internal investigations of his own as a special agent in EPA’s Office of Homeland Security. Patrick Sullivan, Assistant Inspector General for Investigations, recently testified about it before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Sullivan complained that Martin Jr. refuses to share information on security threats with EPA’s Office of Inspector General, which is charged with investigating threats. This latest development exemplifies a phenomenon observers, both inside and outside of EPA, have witnessed over the decades. Problems at EPA tend to take on a life of their own, and never seem to go away.

Democrats, not surprisingly, were generally reluctant to get on board with my efforts to resist the politicization of science at EPA. A senior staff member working for Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas commented to me that many Democrats agree that EPA is in need of repair. The problem, he said, is that Democrats benefit from Republicans appearing anti-environmental every time they try to reform EPA. Clearly, Administrator Scott Pruitt has his work cut out for him.

David L. Lewis, Ph.D., a former senior-level EPA Research Microbiologist, is the Research Director for the Focus for Health Foundation in Watchung, NJ.