Go to jail; go directly to jail. Do not defraud the EPA.

18 Dec 2013

jailWell, this is hard to believe.  John Beale, a high ranking EPA official was sentenced to 32 months in prison Wednesday for defrauding the US government.  This story seems like something out of Seinfeld – this guy reportedly took premium travel for personal reasons and charged the government. He also took months off (he claimed he was in the CIA) and continued to collect his pay!  Over almost 13 years (which is why this won’t be painted as tied to any particular administration), he bilked the government out of more than $1 Million (much of which he has already repaid).  Beale, who was a former Senior Policy Advisor at the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation (OAR), reportedly admitted his guilt when confronted.

What’s really amazing is that he was only caught after Gina McCarthy, (now the EPA administrator) his former boss, noted that he was still drawing a salary after he had retired!  One report I read quoted the EPA Assistant Inspector General as saying that “There’s a certain culture here at the EPA where the mission is the most important thing,” and “They don’t think like criminal investigators. They tend to be very trusting and accepting.”  Again, I have this image of George Constanza sleeping under his custom made desk and no one noticing!

How many things are wrong with this?  Well, the lack of internal controls is disturbing to me as a tax payer and as someone whose clients are cited often for lacking controls (glass houses, anyone?).  Certainly, the statement that the EPA doesn’t think like a criminal investigator is intriguing as the EPA is charged with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws – and often seeks both civil and criminal sanctions!  And then there’s the biggest one – the undercutting of the agency’s positions on climate change and a host of other issues.  There is a legal doctrine that agency interpretations of laws and rules are entitled to significant deference.  This has rankled me and many in the regulated community for years as it seems that the EPA gets too much deference.  Now, when agency personnel stake out a position – will the Courts defer or will they wonder (as humans are often so inclined) “why should I trust this agency representative, if they can’t police their own house, why should they be policing anyone else’s?”  This is yet another kick in the teeth for an agency charged with ensuring our air and water are safe.

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