By Donald K. Sherman
March 1, 2019

Yesterday, the United States Senate easily confirmed former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Wheeler’s confirmation came despite significant ethics challenges during his tenure at EPA including revelations of lobbying disclosure violations as well as CREW’s recent complaint alleging that Wheeler violated his ethics obligations by relaxing  EPA coal ash regulations and participating in other EPA matters involving his former lobbying clients. Wheeler’s predecessor at EPA, Scott Pruitt, resigned amidst numerous ethics scandals, and, the agency has faced a myriad of inquiries including for scrubbing its website of information regarding climate change as well as potential violations of the Federal Records Act. The litany of ethics and transparency abuses from EPA and Wheeler over the last two years demonstrate the critical need for oversight and accountability at the agency. Unfortunately, President Trump has allowed EPA’s internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), to remain without permanent leadership since October 2018.

The confirmation of a conflicted and ethically challenged EPA Administrator demands that the president nominate a qualified and independent Inspector General (IG) candidate as soon as possible to ensure that Wheeler follows relevant ethics rules. EPA’s OIG is an “independent organization that performs audits and investigations of the EPA to detect and prevent fraud, waste and abuse.” In September 2018, former EPA IG Arthur Elkins announced that he would retire from federal service effective October 12, 2018.  Following Elkins’ departure, his deputy, Charles Sheehan, became the acting IG. Sheehan came to EPA OIG in 2012 after years of federal investigative and legal experience including as a judge on EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board. As OIG noted in its statement on Elkins’ departure, under the Inspector General Act, the IG “must be selected without regard to political affiliation. Unlike most presidential appointees, inspectors general do not leave these positions when a new president takes office.” To date, the IG vacancy at the EPA has lasted for more than four months.

Despite Acting IG Sheehan’s stellar credentials and long record of government service, EPA must have permanent leadership in its OIG. Acting Inspectors General have less independent authority than their Senate-confirmed counterparts, and as one former IG has noted, their temporary status “can have a debilitating effect on [an] OIG, particularly over a lengthy period.” President Trump certainly could nominate Acting IG Sheehan to fill this post as he did with now former-Acting Administrator Wheeler, but whether he will do so remains to be seen.  

A permanent IG will help to ensure that EPA Administrator Wheeler abides by his ethics agreements regarding former clients in the coal industry and bolster the independence of the office when thorny conflicts with agency management arise. It will also strengthen OIG’s independence as it investigates allegations of misconduct by other senior leaders at EPA. For example, just days ago, the Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Frank Pallone, as well as Senators Tom Carper and Sheldon Whitehouse called for an investigation of Bill Wehrum, the top air policy official at EPA, alleging that Wehrum violated ethics rules based on his alleged involvement in the drafting of an EPA memo on litigation involving his former firm’s industry client.

EPA would greatly benefit from having permanent, Senate-confirmed leadership in its OIG. Currently, there are 12 vacant IG positions across the federal government including five that have been vacant for the duration of President Trump’s time in the White House. While every IG vacancy is problematic, especially as ethics and transparency issues mount at these agencies, Administrator Wheeler’s confirmation creates a new sense of urgency for EPA OIG. Hopefully, the President will soon nominate a qualified and independent candidate to address this need. If not, Congress and the American people should demand to know why.