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U.S. House panel probes EPA over employee misconduct

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday denied obstructing the work of its internal watchdog and said it is putting systems in place to prevent a repeat of recent instances of employee fraud and misconduct.

The House of Representatives' Oversight Committee also accused the agency of losing control over the conduct of its employees, as it questioned senior EPA officials in a hearing.

The Inspector General in October accused a unit of the agency, known as the Office of Homeland Security, of obstructing its investigations.

Patrick Sullivan, a lead investigator with the EPA IG's office, testified that the homeland security office had refused to share information and failed to report multiple incidents of employee misconduct.

Also testifying was Elisabeth Heller Drake, a special agent with the IG's office, who said a homeland security employee physically assaulted her in October when she tried to ask him questions to assist with an investigation.

"He repeatedly jabbed his finger at me, merely inches from my chest, and as he got more aggressive, his complexion heated, his veins bulged, and he began to sweat profusely," Heller Drake said of the employee.

Sullivan said the dispute is limited to the homeland security division. But committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, linked the incident with a case that came to light in 2013 involving John Beale, an EPA employee who pretended to work for the CIA and received paychecks for 13 years without actually working.

Those cases suggest the EPA is broken, Issa said in his opening remarks. "John Beale's behavior did not happen in a vacuum. In fact, it was just the tip of the iceberg."

Issa cited other examples of employee misconduct, including a worker who had been found watching pornography at his desk up to six hours a day, and with 7,000 pornographic files on his computer.

Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat, said the concerns were symptoms of "a jurisdictional dispute" between the Inspector General's office and the homeland security division.

Deputy EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe said the EPA and its watchdog were working to clarify their responsibilities and that the October incident cited by Heller Drake was "isolated."

"The overwhelming majority of the approximately 16,000 EPA employees are dedicated, hardworking, professional public servants," Perciasepe said, "a point on which I know the Inspector General agrees with me."

Perciasepe said that he and Administrator Gina McCarthy will meet soon with the FBI's head of intelligence and with Arthur Elkins, the EPA's inspector general, to establish new protocols.

Since 2009, the agency has EPA has taken 71 criminal actions, 111 civil actions and 240 administrative actions involving matters flagged by the IG, he said.

Issa gave the EPA one month to produce documents and communications between the agency and White House officials about the EPA's response to congressional requests, or else face contempt.

The committee in November asked the EPA for documents on a range of matters including the disputed Pebble Mine in Alaska, which is potentially one of the largest copper projects in the world.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, editing by Ros Krasny and Richard Chang)

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