STATEMENT OF NIKKI L. TINSLEY
U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
BEFORE THE SENATE ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS COMMITTEE,
JUNE 25, 2002
Good Morning Chairman Jeffords and Members of the Committee. My name is Nikki Tinsley and I am the Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I am pleased to speak to the Committee today about the Office of the Inspector General’s implementation and operation of the Ombudsman function.
I’d like to begin my remarks with a brief history of the EPA Ombudsman. The Ombudsman function was established by Congress in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act amendments of 1984. Although the statutory authority for the office expired in 1989, and Congress has not reauthorized it, EPA has continuously maintained the Ombudsman function in some form for more than 16 years. As originally authorized, the Ombudsman’s mission was to provide information, and investigate complaints and grievances from the public related to EPA’s administration of certain hazardous and solid waste programs.
In July 2001, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report, EPA’s National and Regional Ombudsmen Do Not Have Sufficient Independence, GAO-01-813. This report identified areas of weakness in the operation of the Ombudsman function regarding its independence from the program office that is subject to review, its impartiality and freedom from conflict of interest, and its accountability and reporting. Given that the Ombudsman’s role of reviewing Agency actions is similar to the work we were created to perform, and because we report to both Congress and the Agency, I believe our office was well suited to assume the investigatory functions of the Ombudsman’s office. In April of this year, the Ombudsman’s Office was transferred to the OIG.
Congress established the Inspectors General through the Inspector General Act of 1978 (Act), to serve as an independent, impartial and accountable source for audits, evaluations and, investigations of the activities of Federal Departments and Agencies in an effort to prevent and detect fraud, waste, and abuse, and enhance the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of government programs and operations. We are sometimes known as “watchdogs” for our role in alerting the public and Congress to areas of concern within the Executive branch. Under the Act, Inspectors General have the authority to demand access to any Agency record; request information or assistance from Federal, State or local government agencies; and issue subpoenas. The IG Act also granted certain authorities unique to OIG’s in order to insure our independence. We select, prioritize and carry out all of our work assignments independent of EPA oversight. We have separate budget authority, separate hiring and contracting authority, and independent reporting responsibilities to Congress. These are some of the key characteristics that enable us to effectively review Agency programs and ensures our structural independence.
We perform our work in accordance with established standards and procedures, including Generally Accepted Government Accounting Standards, otherwise known as the GAO “Yellow Book,” and report our findings independently and separately to the EPA Administrator and Congress. The IG Act also provides the OIG broad authorities to receive complaints and conduct investigations. Whatever capacity our staff may be serving in, the basic operating principles of the EPA OIG, and all Federal OIG’s for that matter, are to act with independence, impartiality and accountability. Congress and the public can be assured that all work done by the OIG, including that of the Ombudsman, will continue to meet those standards. For the record, I am submitting a copy of a brief prepared by the U.S. Department of Justice which outlines the legal authority for the OIG to perform the Ombudsman function.
Since the early 1980s, we have operated a Hotline to receive complaints and allegations from the public regarding EPA’s programs, operations, employees and contractors. We receive Hotline complaints through our toll-free number, correspondence and, beginning recently, the Internet. We have the sole discretion either to accept a request for assistance, or decline to act. Such decisions are made based on the information received, supporting evidence, and an internal evaluation process. This function is very similar to the function of an Ombudsman, and over time has provided us with audit, evaluation and investigative leads.
All complaints received by the OIG may not result in an investigation. In those instances where our preliminary work produces sufficient information to warrant a full review, we open a case. Oftentimes a complaint does not warrant an investigation but rather, resolution of an issue. If the first responsibility for handling the issue rests elsewhere in the Agency, we will make a referral. In many cases, elevation of an issue by the OIG is sufficient to get Agency action. This is our current operating procedure for all complaints. In some cases, the OIG will already have ongoing work in an area when a complaint is received by the Ombudsman; when this occurs the Ombudsman will consult with the lead staff member on the assignment to expand the scope of work to include new issues or information. As is the case with all our work, the highest priority assignments are provided the necessary financial and human resources to fulfill their objectives.
We operate as one OIG. This means that our work prioritization involves multiple OIG offices and no single staff member has the authority to select and prioritize their own caseload independent of all other needs. If an issue or investigation warrants further work, the necessary human and financial resources are devoted to the project until the matter has been brought to its appropriate conclusion.
As part of the transfer, we have expanded the services of the Ombudsman to include all EPA administered programs, rather than limiting it to only Superfund and hazardous waste issues. Within the OIG, the Ombudsman now has the opportunity to utilize the expert assistance of all OIG staff, which includes scientists, auditors, attorneys, engineers, and investigators. Ours is a matrix organization. We assign staff and other resources to projects on a priority basis, drawing from a large pool of OIG resources.
I’d like to now give you an update on what we have accomplished in the 10 weeks since we began doing the work of the Ombudsman. Our first order of business was to get an Acting Ombudsman in place, and to assess the transferred caseload. This involved the inventory and organizing of 130 boxes of documents that were transferred from the National Ombudsman’s office in OSWER. This was a rather challenging undertaking due to the lack of any organized system of records or case file index. It took us until early June to organize and review the files and to assess the information and the work that had been done. To date, we have had eight OIG staff members assigned to the Ombudsman’s caseload, which is more than double the staff that had been assigned in OSWER.
According to GAO’s 2001 report, the prior National Ombudsman opened 34 cases between October 1992 and December 2002, closing 14 of those cases within five to 25 months, 13 months being average. We are assessing the remaining 20 cases. Ten of the 20 cases initially appear to be completed or closed, and we are working to confirm this. The remaining 10 cases range in age from more than 20 months to five years and appear to be unresolved. These cases include Marjol Battery, Shattuck Chemical, Bunker Hill/Coeur d’Alene. Further, we are determining the status of seven additional cases where we have found documents or read media accounts of the existence of cases. This includes the World Trade Center, which we have incorporated into an already ongoing OIG assignment.
We have developed a priority list of cases, and will be working to conclude these as quickly as possible. We have also begun outreach efforts in order to both explain how we plan to perform the Ombudsman function and to collect additional information. We have met with individual Members of Congress and Congressional Committee staff. We have made contact with citizen groups in several of the communities where there are open cases, and we have scheduled site visits and public meetings for Couer d’Alene, Idaho and Tarpon Springs, Florida in July.
Our primary focus at this point is to work to resolve the already existing cases. To do this, we are conducting our work using our audit, evaluation and investigative standards and procedures. At the same time we are working on developing policies and procedures for handling future incoming cases. This includes case selection criteria. We have also met with the Regional Ombudsmen and are working with them to develop a coordinated approach for addressing the incoming issues at all levels in a timely and appropriate manner.
I believe the public reporting of the caseload, activities, and accomplishments of the Ombudsman is a vital and important responsibility. As an Inspector General I firmly believe that professional standards of conduct, a transparent review process, and public accountability strengthens the credibility of the reviewer’s findings. In order to provide accountability and communication with the public, and Congress, the work of our Ombudsman will meet the same high standards we have for all our other products. We will publish at least annually a report summarizing the work of the Ombudsman, including a status report on the cases opened by the National Ombudsman and recommendations or findings made to the Agency. We already provide similar reports semiannually for all our work, and annually for Superfund program work.
Members of the Committee, I am proud of the track record of the EPA OIG. I want to assure the public, EPA stakeholders, and Congress that we will conduct the Ombudsman work with independence and professionalism. I give you my commitment to be responsive to any questions or comments you may have as we move forward with this important work. I welcome your assistance in providing any information or suggestions as we move forward with our new responsibilities. That said, I hope that you withhold judgment on our performance until such time as we have had an opportunity to produce results.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate today. I will respond to any questions the Committee may have at this time.