December 1, 2001

EPA strategy could limit authority of ombudsman 

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — Robert J. Martin, national ombudsman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, could lose some of his independence when he is transferred to the agency’s inspector general’s office.

EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said she is transferring Martin, who investigates complaints brought by citizens, in order to “give the function independence and impartiality.”

Yet it is possible, even likely, that as a result of the transfer Martin will lose the authority to decide which complaints to investigate. The ombudsman since 1992, Martin scrutinizes agency cleanup plans at Superfund sites and other toxic waste dumps and issues recommendations to improve or overturn them.

Eileen McMahon, spokeswoman for EPA Inspector General Nikki L. Tinsley, said it has “not been determined” whether complaints will
go directly to Martin or will go first to other officials in the inspector general’s office. If complaints went first to other officials, they might effectively control what Martin investigates.

“We have not set up our specific procedures and processes for how we are going to handle the workload,” McMahon said.

She explained that the inspector general’s office will evaluate the ombudsman’s job over several months to determine its budget and
staffing needs and how it will operate under the inspector general.

Martin has said his pending transfer to the inspector general amounts to dissolving his office. The ombudsman is currently based in the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, responsible for overseeing cleanup plans.

“If some other entity takes over the responsibility for Mr. Martin’s cases and/or makes decisions on his cases ... then Mr. Martin will no longer be ombudsman,” said Hugh Kaufman, a former investigator for Martin who is now acting as his representative in the dispute.

Kaufman said ombudsmen need to be independent and impartial, which is only possible if they can decide on their own what to investigate and what changes to recommend.

In a memo to top EPA officials, Whitman said recommendations contained in a General Accounting Office report on the ombudsman figured into her plan. The report, which is strictly advisory, concluded the ombudsman lacks sufficient independence to do his job. 

That was the first recommendation in the report, which suggests further steps to strengthen the independence of the ombudsman and make him more accountable.

Whitman’s plan doesn’t necessarily implement the second recommendation, which is to provide the ombudsman with a separate budget and give him the authority to hire, fire and supervise his staff.

Martin said he was told by EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Michael Shapiro he will “not be allowed to supervise any resources.”

While Martin does not currently have the authority to hire and fire staff, he has been allowed to select staff and assign them to specific duties, he said.