EXCLUSIVE: EPA Asked To Investigate A Federal Board Controlled By Obama Holdovers

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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An anonymous complaint was filed with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Inspector General alleging the results of a chemical agency’s employee satisfaction survey were skewed by “management implied threats” that everyone could lose their jobs.

Chemical Safety Board (CSB) employee survey results are “highly biased due to management implied threats that the agency may be shut down,” according to the whistleblower complaint, which was obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The complaint asks EPA investigators to look into whether or not CSB employees felt pressured by management to give positive survey responses, noting that “most CSB staff are miserable.”

“The only thing that would make us more miserable is to not have a job or income,” reads the complaint that was sent to investigators on Monday.

The Office of Personnel Management-led survey reported a 22 percent increase employee satisfaction at CSB, nearly double the 14 percent increase in satisfaction reported in the 2016 survey. But the complaint claims those results are skewed because employees feared they could lose their jobs.

The complaint alleges Thomas Zoeller, a senior adviser to CSB Chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland, told employees Congress would scrutinize the results of the agency’s employee satisfaction survey.

Zoeller told staffers he’d “been informed by Capitol Hill staff that if the CSB’s [survey] results did not significantly improve, the CSB might, in fact, be abolished” in light of the Trump administration’s budget proposal.

“Mr. Zoeller never said we had to increase the scores, or that agency management would retaliate against us,” reads the complaint. “He framed the matter as one where Congressional Committees would simply abolish the agency.”

“The staff took this as a direct threat to our jobs,” reads the complaint. “You should check with the CSB staff as to whether they felt they were being pressured to give the agency high 2017 Fed EVS results. I know I did, as did most of my colleagues.”

CSB is an independent board that investigates major chemical disasters, like the 2010 BP oil spill and the 2013 Texas fertilizer plant explosion. The board has no regulatory authority, but issues recommendations to regulatory agencies based on their investigations.

The complaint was filed by CSB employees, according to sources familiar with the matter. EPA OIG would not confirm or deny whether or not they received the anonymous complaint.

It’s only the latest controversy to come out regarding the CSB, a board that’s still headed exclusively by Obama administration appointees.

A Misunderstanding?

Chairwoman Sutherland confirmed meeting with CSB staff to TheDCNF, saying it was part of a broader staff meeting in the wake of the White House’s March “skinny budget” calling for CSB’s elimination.

Employee morale was just one factor Congress would be looking at when weighing the budget proposal, Sutherland said in an interview.

“The [survey] was one element they were going to look at because that’s what they told us,” Sutherland said, adding she erred on the “side of being candid” to CSB employees.

Sutherland said she also told CSB staff that Congress would look at the agency’s budget, management and its investigations when weighing any cuts. She encouraged employees to fill out the OPM survey, though she did not tell them how to answer.

“It’s important to air on the side of transparency,” she said, though admitted in hindsight she maybe shouldn’t have been so candid with the staff.

“You never know how an audience is going to receive information,” Sutherland told TheDCNF.

Sutherland said the jump in survey results over the last couple of years could be due to management reforms she’s undertaken since former CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso was forced out of office in 2015. During that time, morale hit rock bottom.

“No one was told how to, or not to, vote on the anonymous OPM-led survey,” she said.

TheDCNF has previously reported on internal strife at CSB, including an EPA inspector general investigation into possible illegal lobbying by as many as three board members, including Sutherland.

There’s also evidence board member Rick Engler colluded with union activists as part of a grassroots campaign to preserve CSB’s funding in the face of budget cuts.

The employees also filed the complaint with other federal agencies for a startling reason.

“There is also a belief among staff that the EPA IG is totally biased in favor of Ms. Sutherland.  That’s why this is being sent to [Office of Personnel Management] and the OPM IG, as well as [Office of Special Counsel],” reads the complaint.

House lawmakers largely rejected the White House’s budget plan and put forward an appropriations bill in July that funded CSB.

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