Canton Repository

November 15, 2002

GAO report criticizes ombudsman transfer 

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — Transferring the national ombudsman from one part of the Environmental Protection Agency to another has created problems and should be reconsidered, the General Accounting Office said Thursday.

The criticism from the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, marks the latest salvo in a continuing political battle over the ombudsman’s independence.

Until he quit in protest last March, former ombudsman Robert Martin had won praise from citizen activists across the nation for investigating EPA cleanup plans at hazardous waste sites like the Industrial Excess Landfill in Lake Township.

Martin said his forced transfer within the agency to the EPA inspector general’s office destroyed his ability to do the job.

In its latest report on the ombudsman, the General Accounting Office said the relocation to the inspector general’s office “has created a position that will not function as a true ombudsman in interactions with the public and may adversely affect the independence” of the inspector general.

Under the EPA-sponsored reorganization, the General Accounting Office said, “the national ombudsman will not be able to exercise independent control over budget and staff resources.” The report added “the national ombudsman will also lack authority to independently select and prioritize cases that warrant investigation.”

The report found that with the ombudsman in the inspector general’s office, the inspector general “can no longer independently audit and investigate that function, as is the case with other federal agencies where the ombudsman function and the (inspector general) are separate entities.”

The General Accounting Office produced the report at the request of Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

EPA officials disputed the criticism.

Although the inspector general is part of the EPA, Inspector General Nikki L. Tinsley said the office is structurally independent because it has a separate budget, hires its own employees and reports to Congress.

“These characteristics surround the ombudsman and thus provide the requisite independence from the government entity being reviewed — the EPA,” she said.

Critics of the transfer, such as Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project for Government Oversight, said the General Accounting Office report provides ammunition for those in Congress who want to create a more independent ombudsman office.

The report “confirms our belief that the EPA is incapable of really allowing an independent oversight within their shop,” she said. “It shows the absolute necessity for legislation that will create an office that cannot be closed on the whim of the administrator and that will have real independence and authority.”

EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman ordered the ombudsman to be moved to the inspector general’s office after critics complained Martin had toolittle independence in another EPA division. Martin, however, said the inspector general’s office was designed to give him even less freedom. He quit in protest.

The inspector general division investigates waste, fraud and abuse at the agency.