Darrell Issa Has a New Target”“and Democrats Are Joining Him

Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Rep Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-M.D.
National Journal
Jason Plautz
Add to Briefcase
Jason Plautz
June 19, 2014, 9:29 a.m.

Law­makers want the head of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s chem­ic­al-ac­ci­dent in­vest­ig­a­tion unit to resign, say­ing he is over­see­ing a broken board where mis­man­age­ment has cre­ated a “tox­ic” work en­vir­on­ment.

A House Over­sight Com­mit­tee re­port al­leges the Chem­ic­al Safety and Haz­ard In­vest­ig­a­tion Board is mired in a ma­na­geri­al mess, with prob­lems in­clud­ing everything from re­tali­ation against whistle-blowers to re­pres­sion of pub­lic de­bate to ob­struc­tion of out­side in­vest­ig­a­tions. The dys­func­tion, the re­port changes, has forced out in­vest­ig­at­ors and has cre­ated an at­mo­sphere that makes it im­possible for the board to ful­fill its mis­sion.

The is­sues promp­ted Over­sight Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dar­rell Issa and oth­er mem­bers, in­clud­ing Demo­crats, to sug­gest that CSB Chair­man Ra­fael Moure-Era­so step down be­fore his term ex­pires.

“You really need to ask wheth­er or not in your last year, you can really undo the dam­age of your first five,” Issa said.

Speak­ing after the hear­ing, Moure-Era­so de­clined to com­ment on the resig­na­tion calls.

One mem­ber of the already short­han­ded Chem­ic­al Safety Board stepped down after just 17 months of her five-year term. In testi­mony be­fore the com­mit­tee, Beth Rosen­berg de­scribed an at­mo­sphere where staff was dis­cour­aged from talk­ing to board mem­bers and there was little room for de­bate or dis­cus­sion that could foster study of chem­ic­al dis­asters.

“Those whose opin­ions differed from those of seni­or lead­er­ship or the chair are mar­gin­al­ized and vil­i­fied,” Rosen­berg said. “At the CSB, dis­agree­ment is seen as dis­loy­alty. Cri­ti­cism is not wel­come and staff fear re­tali­ation.”

The CSB is an in­de­pend­ent agency cre­ated in 1998 to in­vest­ig­ate chem­ic­al dis­asters — everything from the plant ex­plo­sion in West, Texas, to the BP oil spill — and is­sue re­com­mend­a­tions to private com­pan­ies and gov­ern­ment agen­cies to pre­vent fu­ture in­cid­ents. But it’s been be­set by a long back­log. Between 2010 and 2012, only 11 of 31 planned in­vest­ig­a­tions were com­pleted, in­clud­ing only two in­vest­ig­a­tions be­ing com­pleted in 2012.

“We are a very small agency charged with a huge mis­sion of in­vest­ig­at­ing far more ac­ci­dents than we have the re­sources to tackle,” said Moure-Era­so, who has served since 2010. The board nor­mally has five mem­bers but presently has just two, al­though two more have been nom­in­ated by the White House.

But the Over­sight Com­mit­tee has charged that it was man­age­ment is­sues — many rooted with Moure-Era­so — that have led to staff mem­bers leav­ing, com­pound­ing the back­log. An 84-page re­port fea­tur­ing 10 in­ter­views with cur­rent and former staff mem­bers de­scribes “ser­i­ous man­age­ment de­fi­cien­cies.”

Par­tic­u­larly at is­sue was the treat­ment of the gen­er­al coun­sel’s of­fice — the re­port al­leges that Moure-Era­so hired coun­sel Richard Loeb without ap­prov­al of the rest of the board, then sought to push out then-coun­sel Chris Warner. Warner was later re­as­signed, a move that Moure-Era­so said was not a de­mo­tion.

The in­cid­ent cre­ated a “tense and con­flic­ted time” among the board, ac­cord­ing to man­aging dir­ect­or Daniel Horow­itz, and sev­er­al in­vest­ig­at­ors left.

The re­port also ac­cuses Moure-Era­so and Horow­itz of “mi­cro­man­aging” in­vest­ig­a­tions and for­cing in­vest­ig­at­ors out, stalling on­go­ing re­ports like a high-pro­file in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to a Te­soro re­finery fire in Wash­ing­ton state that took four years to com­plete.

It’s not the first time the board’s man­age­ment has come un­der fire. A Ju­ly 2013 IG re­port noted a lack of “defined per­form­ance in­dic­at­ors,” an in­vest­ig­at­or turnover rate of 15 per­cent, and out-of-date policies as con­trib­ut­ing to an in­vest­ig­at­ive back­log. In a let­ter to the Over­sight Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day, Cali­for­nia Demo­crat Henry Wax­man, who was in­volved in es­tab­lish­ing the board, de­scribed his work with the board to im­prove de­cision-mak­ing and plan­ning.

Moure-Era­so’s con­front­a­tion­al style has been on dis­play be­fore. In hear­ings after the West, Texas, ex­plo­sion, he fired off against the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, point­ing out “many large holes” in en­force­ment. And at one of his CSB’s meet­ings last Ju­ly, he ag­gress­ively over­ruled a re­quest by two oth­er board mem­bers to hold a plan­ning meet­ing on the in­vest­ig­a­tion back­log.

Rosen­berg re­layed the lat­ter in­cid­ent to the com­mit­tee, say­ing the ab­sence of a plan con­trib­uted to “low staff mor­ale” and that the meet­ing cre­ated a tense at­mo­sphere.

The board has since hired a con­sult­ant — Moure-Era­so com­pared it to a “mar­riage coun­selor” — to work on man­age­ment is­sues.

The case that launched the in­vest­ig­a­tion had to do with the al­leged leak of a whistle-blower’s iden­tity from CSB. That in­vest­ig­a­tion was re­ferred to the White House Of­fice of Spe­cial Coun­sel, but launched a second one re­lated to the use of per­son­al email ac­counts to con­duct CSB busi­ness. Sev­er­al emails from a private at­tor­ney hired by the board were with­held be­cause of at­tor­ney-cli­ent priv­ilege. Dur­ing the back-and-forth over the re­quest, ac­cus­a­tions flew of ob­struc­tion and the CSB even ac­cused the IG’s of­fice of ask­ing an em­ploy­ee to wear a wire to meet­ings with the spe­cial coun­sel.

In re­sponse, the IG took the rare step of send­ing a “Sev­en Day Let­ter” last Septem­ber to alert con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees to the ob­struc­tion (the let­ters are rarely used; only one was sent between 2008 and 2011, ac­cord­ing to a Gov­ern­ment­al Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice re­port). The in­vest­ig­a­tion is still open pending the re­lease of the doc­u­ments.

The at­tor­ney cli­ent-priv­ilege is­sue is a murky one (a Green­wire story from Oc­to­ber ex­amined it), but the re­quest won’t be go­ing away. Issa said he in­tends to is­sue sub­poen­as that mir­ror the re­quest against the IG. A fail­ure to com­ply with­in sev­en days, he said, would res­ult in the board mem­bers be­ing held in con­tempt of Con­gress.

And the com­mit­tee has al­leged that CSB mem­bers tried to block the in­vest­ig­a­tion, cit­ing memos that re­com­men­ded staff not re­spond to re­quests from Con­gress.

Rosen­berg re­called hav­ing dis­cus­sions with staff in the ladies room and out­side of the agency for fear of re­pris­al. It all adds up to an en­vir­on­ment that she said would make it dif­fi­cult for the board to carry out its work, which she called “unique and im­port­ant.”

“The agency is broken,” she said. “It needs to be re­built.”

What We're Following See More »
INTERVIEW THIS WEEK
Trump Still Considering Yellen For Fed
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

"President Donald Trump plans to formally interview Janet Yellen this week about potentially staying on as Federal Reserve chair, two people familiar with the matter said...Many Republicans on Capitol Hill want Trump to move on from Yellen, whose first term ends in February, and choose a more traditionally conservative Fed chair."

Source:
NOMINEE FOR ONDCP
Trump Noncommittal on Marino
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS
IN LIGHT OF 60 MINUTES REVELATIONS
Manchin Asks Trump to Drop Marino’s Nomination for Drug Czar
9 hours ago
THE LATEST
WOULD OVERTURN MARINO LEGISLATION ON DRUG DISTRIBUTORS
McCaskill Will Introduce Bill in Response to “60 Minutes” Scoop
9 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In the wake of Sunday's blockbuster 60 Minutes/Washington Post report on opioid regulation and enforcement, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has introduced legislation that "would repeal a 2016 law that hampered the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to regulate opioid distributors it suspects of misconduct." In a statement, McCaskill said: “Media reports indicate that this law has significantly affected the government’s ability to crack down on opioid distributors that are failing to meet their obligations and endangering our communities."

Source:
MCDONNELL PRECEDENT DOESN’T GET HIM OFF THE HOOK … YET
Judge Refuses to Dismiss Charges Against Menendez
9 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The judge overseeing in U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s case says he won’t dismiss any charges against the New Jersey Democrat. Judge William Walls ruled against defense lawyers’ arguments that the charges should be dropped because they didn’t meet a narrower definition of bribery under a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reversed the conviction of Republican former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login