When it Comes to Mismanagement, EPA Takes the Bureaucratic Cake

Washington, D.C., March 17, 2014 — What is the most poorly managed federal agency in Washington? There are plenty of contenders. But based on recent evidence, the clear winner in my mind has to be the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

First, there is the laughably sad tale of John Beale, long a fixture in EPA’s air office, going back decades. Also going back decades, he defrauded the agency of close to $1 million by claiming he was also a CIA agent doing undercover work for the nation’s spy shop. And for decades, EPA bought it, including, for several years, his boss at the air office, Gina McCarthy. She’s now the EPA administrator. Beale’s sudden absences from work (while remaining on the payroll) were hush-hush stuff, as he claimed he was really doing covert missions for the CIA. Nobody checked.

Indeed, all the while he was scamming EPA, the agency was awarding him performance bonuses.

Beale is now in jail, having been sentenced at the end of last year to 32 months for his serial prevarications and theft from an agency that was both clueless and credulous as he stole time and money from them and from us. That’s mismanagement, folks.

The latest evidence of the agency’s premier status as a multiple mismanager is an EPA Inspector General report, revealed in the Washington Post last week. Performing audits of a sample of how EPA employees have used their agency-issued credit cards, the IG found that more than half (52% to be exact) had used the cards to buy unauthorized items. What were EPA employees buying with your money and mine? How about gym and health club memberships for themselves and their families? Meals not related to business? Gift cards?

Those with long memories and weed-deep exposure to Washington management processes (I was once an administrative officer for a federal government agency and had to approve a lot of expenditures) will recall that issuing credit cards to bureaucrats was a “government reform” advocated by newly-installed Vice President Al Gore in 1993. The aim, entirely justified, was to streamline a very sclerotic government purchasing system.

Sounded like a good idea at the time. But government-wide abuses caused Congress to pass a law in 2011 to control abuse of federal agency credit cards. It turns out that the federal government isn’t just another business that can be managed by normal business processes. It’s big. It’s sovereign. It requires controls that go beyond the local Rite Aid (or even Amazon).

But that doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression at EPA. The Post reported, “Half of the EPA’s offices did not follow the federal or agency standards in 2010, and no consequences occurred,’ according to the audit. ‘Since the biennial review process was not followed, corrective actions and improved internal controls did not occur and weaknesses continued from 2008 onward,’ the report said.”

So I present EPA with the award for the worst managed agency in Washington, although I’m sure a solid case could be made for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration or the entire Department of Homeland Security.

What to call the award? Gotta have a name. Oscars, Emmys, Espies, they all have names. My choice is the “Boren,” for the legendary Jim Boren, whose sendups of the federal bureaucracy have never been matched. His seminal works include, “When in Doubt, Mumble: A Bureaucrat’s Handbook,” and “Fuzzify!: Borenwords and Strategies for Bureaucratic Success.”

What would be an appropriate item to characterize the award? My suggestion is a gilded plumber’s plunger.