Bullying, Threats and Chaos at Safety Agency

An aerial picture, taken from a helicopter following US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, shows the devastation at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, on April 25, 2013.
National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
July 31, 2014, 1 a.m.

It was a rough week for Ra­fael Moure-Era­so.

Four days after House Over­sight Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dar­rell Issa ded­ic­ated a hear­ing to slam­ming his work as the head of the fed­er­al Chem­ic­al Safety Board, Moure-Era­so gathered his em­ploy­ees in a con­fer­ence room at the board’s K Street headquar­ters to ad­dress the awk­ward situ­ation.

His first an­nounce­ment: He wasn’t resign­ing — a dis­ap­point­ment to some agency staff and alumni who pine for his ouster.

The second: He could ad­mit he wasn’t per­fect — a state­ment that was met by some snick­ers. When it came time to open the floor for ques­tions, none came.

Ac­cord­ing to CSB em­ploy­ees and out­side crit­ics, Moure-Era­so’s four years as chair­man have been far worse than “not per­fect.” Un­der his watch, staff mem­bers say they’ve been bul­lied to keep de­bate low, key in­vest­ig­at­ors have fled for the door, and an agency that used to be fueled by co­oper­at­ive en­ergy has turned tox­ic. Em­ploy­ees de­scribe feel­ing down­right para­noid, speak­ing in secret in bath­rooms or avoid­ing col­leagues they thought might re­flect poorly on them.

The agency’s in­tern­al strife — com­bined with in­creased con­gres­sion­al scru­tiny and a back­log of un­fin­ished cases — has led some to la­bel the chair­man a fail­ure and to push for him to step down early. But Moure-Era­so is not the first CSB dir­ect­or to struggle: The agency has had in­tern­al dis­putes since its cre­ation, and some be­lieve that any dir­ect­or of the board is be­ing asked to do the im­possible.

Former board mem­ber Beth Rosen­berg, who stud­ied un­der Moure-Era­so, is now among his crit­ics. She resigned her post after serving just 17 months of a five-year term be­cause she felt “mar­gin­al­ized” in an of­fice filled with “de­mor­al­ized” staff.

An in­vest­ig­at­ive back­log has raised pres­sure on CSB to cor­rect its in­tern­al dis­putes. It’s caught the at­ten­tion of mem­bers of both parties — House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee rank­ing Demo­crat Henry Wax­man has flagged neg­at­ive fed­er­al mor­ale sur­vey res­ults, while Issa re­leased a re­port on CSB’s prob­lems and called on Moure-Era­so to resign.

Sev­er­al sources with­in CSB spoke to Na­tion­al Journ­al an­onym­ously for fear of re­pris­al — no titles or ex­per­i­ence levels are be­ing used to pro­tect their iden­tit­ies. Former staff and board mem­bers and in­ter­views in an Over­sight Com­mit­tee re­port help tell a story of an agency strug­gling with in­tern­al con­flict as it looks to catch up with its mis­sion.

BOARD MEM­BERS LONG FOR DE­BATE

Al­though the man­age­ment troubles have reached throughout CSB’s 40 or so em­ploy­ees, Moure-Era­so’s soured re­la­tion­ships with the up to five mem­bers of the board that votes on re­ports and re­com­mend­a­tions stand out. Three former board mem­bers said that they felt pushed out or chal­lenged. A nor­mally col­legi­al and co­oper­at­ive body, they say, was chilled.

Bill Wright, who served a five-year term un­der three chair­men that ended in Septem­ber 2011, said his time un­der Moure-Era­so was “ter­rible” be­cause he felt the chair­man framed re­la­tion­ships through polit­ics (Wright was a George W. Bush nom­in­ee, but said his re­cord showed a his­tory of pro-reg­u­la­tion votes). Fel­low mem­ber Wil­li­am Wark, who served the same ten­ure as Wright, said there were con­stant frus­tra­tions on ef­forts like get­ting a man­age­ment plan to or­gan­ize cases or schedul­ing a pub­lic agenda meet­ing.

There was par­tic­u­lar ten­sion over the de­cision to in­vest­ig­ate the Deep­wa­ter Ho­ri­zon oil spill (which happened just be­fore Moure-Era­so came on, but was car­ried out in his term), an ac­ci­dent the board typ­ic­ally wouldn’t have pur­sued be­cause it was off­shore and was be­ing covered by oth­er agen­cies. Both Wright and Wark voted for the in­vest­ig­a­tion, but only un­der the con­di­tion that they could re­quest ded­ic­ated fund­ing from Con­gress that nev­er ma­ter­i­al­ized, and both now say they re­gret the de­cision.

The hir­ing of Richard Loeb as gen­er­al coun­sel — a de­cision that board mem­bers said they did not have over­sight over — also drove a wedge between the chair­man and his fel­low board mem­bers. The im­plic­a­tion was that Moure-Era­so was try­ing to push gen­er­al coun­sel Chris Warner out of his job for his sup­port for the board mem­bers and re­place him with someone more loy­al. In an email cited in the Over­sight re­port, Wark said the chair­man was “get­ting bad ad­vice” on hu­man re­sources and said he should “not send threat­en­ing emails to Board mem­bers for do­ing their job.”

Un­der stand­ard op­er­at­ing pro­ced­ure, board mem­bers would de­bate with each oth­er and in­spect­ors, be briefed on in­vest­ig­a­tions, and feel a part of guid­ing CSB’s over­all mis­sion. But they say that didn’t hap­pen. Rosen­berg’s testi­mony to the Over­sight Com­mit­tee in­cludes a 2011 memo from Man­aging Dir­ect­or Daniel Horow­itz to in­vest­ig­at­ors in which he chas­tises in­vest­ig­at­ors for go­ing dir­ectly to board mem­bers with pro­pos­als and re­com­mend­a­tions as well as re­quests that he be in­cluded in such dis­cus­sions.

“Al­though I do not nor­mally like to em­phas­ize these mat­ters — and prefer use of the col­legi­al mod­el — send­ing pro­pos­als and re­com­mend­a­tions dir­ectly to board mem­bers without provid­ing me a chance to re­view and ap­prove them lacks pro­fes­sion­al­ism and cour­tesy and un­der­mines ba­sic prin­ciples of sound man­age­ment and ap­pro­pri­ate work­place con­duct,” the memo states.

It was widely seen as an at­tempt to lessen the power of board mem­bers, des­pite Horow­itz’s as­sur­ance in the memo that it was not a bid to “stifle re­spons­ible dis­cus­sion or de­bate,” but was to “avoid situ­ations where staff ap­pear to be com­mu­nic­at­ing in an un­co­ordin­ated man­ner.”

In an in­ter­view, Horow­itz re­it­er­ated that he didn’t think there’s been an at­tempt to freeze out board mem­bers and that in­vest­ig­at­ors are en­cour­aged to talk to them as long as man­age­ment is kept abreast of the big is­sues. “We couldn’t be as good in our re­ports as I think we are if we didn’t do that,” he said. 

The dys­func­tion ap­pears to have gone two ways. In a memo titled “Restor­ing Trust” re­leased by the web­site TruthOut, CSB’s in­vest­ig­a­tion lead­ers say their “trust is broken” be­cause of the ac­tions of Rosen­berg and board mem­ber Mark Grif­fon, in­clud­ing an al­leged in­cid­ent where Rosen­berg told staff in the Den­ver of­fice that she was work­ing to re­move Moure-Era­so and Horow­itz and po­ten­tially take the chair­man post her­self. Later in the memo, the in­vest­ig­at­ors say that Rosen­berg and Grif­fon “are work­ing to delay re­ports” and are fo­ment­ing pub­lic dis­con­tent. An­oth­er memo ex­presses frus­tra­tion that the two board mem­bers wouldn’t meet with staff and say that be­cause of the delays, “our core mis­sion work of is­su­ing in­vest­ig­a­tion re­ports is cur­rently para­lyzed.”

In a re­sponse, also re­leased on TruthOut, Rosen­berg and Grif­fon say they were not delay­ing re­ports, but were wait­ing on com­ments to come in. Rosen­berg said in an in­ter­view that the in­cid­ent was blown out of pro­por­tion — the com­plaints were only brought up months later after she and Grif­fon voted to hear more in­form­a­tion on the Chev­ron in­vest­ig­a­tion.

The im­plic­a­tion: The memo was a re­sponse to a vote that didn’t please man­agers that were look­ing for con­sensus opin­ions.

Rosen­berg has since left to re­turn to aca­demia at Tufts Uni­versity. That’s an en­vir­on­ment, she said in an in­ter­view, where she felt she could ac­tu­ally de­bate and dis­cuss big is­sues. Plus, she said, “people give me hugs here.”

MOR­ALE DROPS AMONG STAFF

That feel­ing has trickled down to the rest of CSB’s 40 or so em­ploy­ees. In a fisc­al 2013 em­ploy­ee sur­vey, ef­fect­ive lead­er­ship was giv­en just a 42.3 per­cent score, the third-worst in the gov­ern­ment. Only 20 per­cent of em­ploy­ees said their seni­or lead­ers were of­fer­ing ef­fect­ive lead­er­ship, a gov­ern­ment low (the av­er­age was 45.4 per­cent), and team­work was rated at just 48.5 per­cent, also a gov­ern­ment low (av­er­age was 64 per­cent).

Over­all mor­ale also showed a drop between 2007 and 2013 on state­ments like “I like the kind of work I do” (down to 76 per­cent from 94 per­cent) and “My work gives me a feel­ing of per­son­al ac­com­plish­ment” (down to 70 per­cent from 94 per­cent).

It was enough to prompt a con­cerned let­ter from Wax­man, who said he was con­cerned that “gov­ernance is­sues at the agency could threaten its im­port­ant mis­sion.”

A Feb­ru­ary 2013 email ex­change ob­tained by Na­tion­al Journ­al shows how touchy things were with re­gards to the mor­ale data: When Horow­itz cir­cu­lated an art­icle that named CSB one of the best small agen­cies to work for, staffer Manuel Gomez re­spon­ded that he was “troubled” by that char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion. Data showed that “we rank, at best, in the bot­tom half among fed­er­al mi­cro agen­cies,” he wrote, adding “job sat­is­fac­tion and mor­ale are ac­tu­ally very poor by mul­tiple meas­ures.”

In an email re­sponse, Moure-Era­so blas­ted the “really pathet­ic” use of num­bers to “spin” a case and said Gomez should “avoid spread­ing un­ne­ces­sary and in­ac­cur­ate gloom and doom.”

“I be­lieve it is not at all bad to be the most im­proved out of 362 agen­cies,” he wrote. “It puzzles me why you have this wish to make things look gloomy.” When Gomez re­spon­ded an­grily and said it soun­ded like an “ef­fort to muffle me,” Moure-Era­so said his email was “sent in a spir­it of lev­ity” and meant to “poke fun at the use of ‘me­di­ans’ in a very sur­faced-based ana­lys­is.”

That at­mo­sphere is also be­hind what crit­ics have char­ac­ter­ized as an ex­odus of ex­per­i­enced in­vest­ig­at­ors. Four left in 2011, in­clud­ing two su­per­visors with 16 years ex­per­i­ence, and CSB has lost an av­er­age of 2.5 in­vest­ig­at­ors since 2008. (Since the Over­sight re­port came out, at least two more staff mem­bers have left) A re­port from the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency in­spect­or gen­er­al on the CSB cited a 15 per­cent an­nu­al staff turnover rate and said that heavy de­mands and lim­ited re­sources could be be­hind the moves.

That, said CSB em­ploy­ees, has left a lack of ex­per­i­ence that has helped slow down case­work and burdened the seni­or staff. The tur­moil has grown so much, said one em­ploy­ee, that he felt CSB wouldn’t even hold up to its own scru­tiny.

“We ana­lyze the en­vir­on­ment and cul­ture in work­places “¦ for ques­tions like wheth­er em­ploy­ees are en­cour­aged to re­port prob­lems or bad news,” the em­ploy­ee said. “We’d be judging harshly a com­pany that op­er­ates in the same way CSB op­er­ates. It’s just hy­po­crit­ic­al.”

MAR­RIAGE COUN­SELORS AND WORK­FORCE COM­MIT­TEES

Moure-Era­so says he’s not deaf to the work­place chal­lenges and is work­ing hard to fix them. CSB con­vened an eight-mem­ber Work­force Im­prove­ment Com­mit­tee last Novem­ber that since met 13 times and has re­com­men­ded an out­side de­vel­op­ment con­sult­ant. It has been made per­man­ent with six vo­lun­teer mem­bers, ac­cord­ing to lead­er­ship. Al­though em­ploy­ees have charged that the im­prove­ment com­mit­tee is tooth­less and could be cor­rup­ted by man­age­ment, Moure-Era­so prom­ised it would be “an in­de­pend­ent voice.”

An out­side con­sult­ant was brought in to meet with staff and present a re­port on mor­ale im­prove­ment (a sort of “mar­riage coun­selor,” Moure-Era­so said). But he denies the al­leg­a­tions that he’s tamped down on the board or in­vest­ig­at­ive staff, say­ing he en­cour­ages open dis­cus­sion and has in­sti­tuted a “scop­ing” pro­cess that keeps status up­dates on re­ports more open. The com­plaints, he said, have more to do with de­bates on big ideas on how in­vest­ig­a­tions or re­com­mend­a­tions should go.

“The staff have very strong ideas about what the find­ings and the re­com­mend­a­tions are and at the end it has to come to a re­port and ul­ti­mately come to the board,” he said. “There are some people with very strong opin­ions and their opin­ions don’t carry the day.”

Man­age­ment has said that the turnover is nor­mal and that they have re­placed their losses with equally ex­per­i­enced hires (one new staffer had 33 years of in­dustry work). The board also has plans to hire five or six more in­vest­ig­at­ors in the next year and they’ve poin­ted out that re­ports are com­ing out at a faster pace, in­clud­ing one just weeks after the Over­sight hear­ing.

The big­ger ques­tion, however, is wheth­er the chaos is new or is part of CSB’s short his­tory. The non-reg­u­lat­ory agency was cre­ated in the 1990 Clean Air Act amend­ments and was seen as a coun­ter­part to the Oc­cu­pa­tion­al Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Na­tion­al Trans­port­a­tion Safety Board, and oth­er in­vest­ig­at­ive bod­ies. But it took un­til 1998 for the board to be­come fully staffed up amid ques­tions about ex­ec­ut­ive over­sight.

The board’s first chair­man, Paul Hill, was al­leged to be guilty of some dic­tat­ori­al moves that over­stepped the oth­er board mem­bers, which promp­ted em­ploy­ees to seek guid­ance from the Justice De­part­ment Of­fice of Leg­al Coun­sel. The en­su­ing “Moss opin­ion” laid out a sys­tem where the chair­man is a “chief among equals” (a de­scrip­tion co­di­fied by a CSB board or­der) and must listen to the four oth­er board mem­bers when mak­ing de­cisions.

The small staff and tight $11 mil­lion budget for CSB has been cited as a reas­on for its in­vest­ig­at­ive back­log, but also con­trib­utes to the stressed en­vir­on­ment. Former board mem­ber Wark com­pared it to “a little chick­en al­ways get­ting pecked at” when politi­cians wanted an ac­ci­dent in their dis­trict ad­dressed. There’s even been talk among stake­hold­ers that it would be bet­ter off fol­ded in­to NTSB or OSHA.

PRES­SURE BUILDS

For now, though, people in­side and out­side the agency are just won­der­ing how to fix the dim at­mo­sphere with­in. At June’s Over­sight Com­mit­tee hear­ing, Chair­man Issa called on Moure-Era­so to resign (“You really need to ask wheth­er or not in your last year, you can really undo the dam­age of your first five,” Issa said) and re­it­er­ated that in a let­ter to Pres­id­ent Obama.

Nobody ques­tions Moure-Era­so’s com­mit­ment to work­er safety, but they say his man­age­ment style leaves in doubt wheth­er CSB can up­hold that mis­sion.

An on­go­ing in­spect­or gen­er­al in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the leaked iden­tity of whistle-blowers at CSB has com­plic­ated mat­ters — the IG said that CSB of­fi­cials were with­hold­ing doc­u­ments (man­age­ment had cited at­tor­ney-cli­ent priv­ilege) and is still re­view­ing a re­cent re­lease of emails to see if CSB has com­plied.

Two more nom­in­ees for the board are on hold in the Sen­ate un­til that dis­pute is re­solved. That leaves CSB in an un­usu­al po­s­i­tion — be­cause of rules about col­lu­sion, Moure-Era­so and Grif­fon, the sole re­main­ing board mem­ber, can’t be in the same room alone dis­cuss­ing of­fi­cial busi­ness.

There’s been no fol­low-up from either the White House or Con­gress, but dis­cus­sions about Moure-Era­so’s fu­ture are con­tinu­ing be­hind the scenes on Cap­it­ol Hill and among stake­hold­ers.

“I know that the re­fin­ing in­dustry be­lieves that a well-man­aged, pro­fes­sion­al, and re­spec­ted CSB can play a much needed role in en­han­cing work­er and com­munity safety,” said an in­dustry ex­ec­ut­ive work­ing with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials on mat­ters re­lated to CSB. “To that end, we are in­tent on be­ing a con­struct­ive voice in help­ing to re-fo­cus the Agency to­ward its ori­gin­al mis­sion of provid­ing ob­ject­ive in­vest­ig­at­ive ana­lys­is of in­cid­ents free of any polit­ic­al agenda.”

But Moure-Era­so has said he won’t resign and is de­term­ined to close out the re­mainder of his term.

Former board mem­ber Rosen­berg said she’s con­fid­ent that the gov­ernance is­sues are “fix­able” and that she would like to see them be cor­rec­ted soon. Oth­ers aren’t so sure.

“People have asked me if I’d go back and I say you’d have to turn the whole thing up­side down,” said Wright, adding that he’d want board mem­bers to get hir­ing and fir­ing powers. “It’s sup­posed to be the pin­nacle of your ca­reer, but not when you’re mar­gin­al­ized and the staff can’t treat you with re­spect. I wouldn’t go back to that.”

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