Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Robin Bravender, E&E reporter
Months after getting caught in the act of watching pornography at the office, a highly paid U.S. EPA employee has been banned from the building, but he’s still on the payroll.
The offending staffer’s habits came to light during a spectacle of a House hearing in May. Aghast lawmakers took turns jabbing EPA for failing to fire the staffer, who confessed to having watched pornography on his work computer for between two and six hours per day since 2010.
“How much pornography would it take for an EPA employee to lose their job?” asked incredulous Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
“Fire him. Fire him,” demanded Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
The fact that EPA’s prolific porn watcher is still employed more than four months later has prompted even more outrage from Capitol Hill.
“If this is not a case for the EPA to take someone off the payroll, which the agency’s Inspector General uncovered months ago, then what is?” Issa said today in a statement. “It is simply unacceptable that this individual would continue to receive compensation courtesy of the American taxpayer. The EPA clearly needs to get its house in order, and it is astonishing that such egregious abuses remain unresolved.”
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) promised congressional action.
“Paying to keep a confirmed porn watcher at government expense demonstrates the need for dramatic reform and the need to suspend federal employee compensation after they have been caught in the act,” Mica said today in a statement. “It may be too late in this Congress to further pursue this reform but I will make every effort to see how we can address this matter.”
The staffer is on administrative leave but still receiving his salary, according to EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia. “This employee continues to be investigated by the [Office of the Inspector General] and U.S. Attorney’s Office, and we are working with these offices to obtain information necessary to move forward with administrative action,” she said.
EPA would not offer more updates about the employee’s status, and Jeff Lagda, a spokesman for the EPA inspector general’s office, said he couldn’t share any more specifics while the investigation is ongoing. The employee’s name has been withheld by EPA and investigators.
Investigators confirmed the staffer’s porn viewing when an OIG special agent arrived at his workspace to conduct an interview. The agent “witnessed the employee actively viewing pornography on his government-issued computer,” Allan Williams, deputy assistant EPA inspector general, told lawmakers at the May hearing (Greenwire, May 7).
The employee confessed to spending hours each day watching porn at work, and the OIG found that he had downloaded and viewed more than 7,000 pornographic files while on the job, Williams said, noting then that the Justice Department had accepted the case for prosecution.
Issa shared some additional details about the staffer’s habits, including the fact that he had spent four consecutive hours on a site called “Sadism is Beautiful.” Committee staff also noted that the employee was a highly paid GS-14 staffer who had received performance awards during the time period he had been watching pornography at work.
Employees working in Washington, D.C., at the General Schedule 14 pay scale earn between $106,000 and $139,000 per year in fiscal 2014, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
‘It’s not easy to fire somebody’
When lawmakers grilled EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on the porn watcher at a separate hearing in June, she said she shared their frustrations that problem employees couldn’t be fired more quickly. “Any way that we can make these processes move more quickly, I’m all for it,” she said (E&ENews PM, June 25).
“I actually have to work through the administrative process, as you know, and there is still an ongoing OIG criminal investigation, is my understanding,” she told lawmakers. “We have actually banned him from the building. He no longer has access to any EPA equipment” and was already on administrative leave at the time, she said.
The slow pace of dealing with the employee isn’t too far out of the ordinary, said Earl Devaney, the now-retired economic stimulus watchdog who spent decades in top government oversight posts.
If DOJ has accepted the case for prosecution, he said, “EPA is totally handcuffed” from taking administrative actions in the meantime, as prosecutors are likely involved in negotiations with the suspect to plead to a crime or are pursuing an indictment. “If they are going to prosecute, they don’t want that administrative action having been taken because let’s say they go to a jury and the jury hears that he’s already lost his job, they start feeling sorry for him,” Devaney added.
“The fact that they’ve accepted it as a crime suggests to me that it’s something more than just watching, let’s call it regular porn,” he said, suggesting that something more serious might be involved. Devaney noted that he wasn’t familiar with the specific circumstances of this case.
However, because the employee had confessed to watching an average of several hours of pornography at work per day, “that could be enough to say, ‘Let’s send a signal here, and on a technicality we’ll charge him with a crime.’ Theft of government services comes to mind, because he’s abusing taxpayers’ monies; obviously, they didn’t pay him to watch porn,” Devaney added.
Not many people get fired from EPA in any given year based on performance issues. In the agency of roughly 16,000 staffers, only five have been terminated due to discipline or performance issues so far in fiscal 2014, according to a database kept by OPM. Ten were fired for performance or discipline in fiscal 2013; 24 were terminated the previous year.
Those numbers appear “about normal if you go across government,” Devaney said. “There are so many hoops that you have to jump through, so many appeal rights that a suspect has that they can literally tie up a general counsel’s office for weeks and months.
“It’s not easy to fire somebody.”