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A Talk with Arthur Elkins: The Inspector General of the EPA’s Office of Inspector General

August 18, 2015
In 1978, The Inspector General Act was passed under the Carter Administration. The Act created Inspectors General (IGs) at 12 Federal departments and agencies. Today, 72 Federal entities and agencies now have Offices of Inspector General (OIG).[1] “The OIG’s mission is to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness, and to detect and deter fraud, waste and mismanagement throughout the government.”[2] The OIG is regarded as an independent and objective unit.

By Cassandra Vickers, C’16

As an intern in the Office of Program Evaluation in the Office of Inspector General at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I was fortunate to sit down with the EPA’s Inspector General. Arthur Elkins, who prefers Art, has been the Inspector General since June of 2010. This position is presidentially appointed and when asked about how he felt when selected by the President to serve in this role, he responded “it was a real honor” because “the President has a lot of different options.” He was “humbled” to know that the President believed he was the right person for the job out of what Art believed was a qualified applicant pool. Though Art has not yet met the President, he hopes to one day.

Though presidentially appointed, Art is not worried about having to finish his term as the Inspector General even with the approaching 2016 election. While President Obama will be leaving office, Art can maintain his position as the Inspector General because he serves at the will of the President. However, if a President wishes to replace the IG, malfeasance would have to be demonstrated. Art claims that otherwise Inspector Generals “tend to stick around,” which suggests that Art is not going anywhere any time soon.

As an executive branch agency that is charged with detecting fraud and promoting efficient allocation of taxpayer dollars through supervising the actions of its specific agency, the OIGs are almost inherently met with opposition. The Brookings Institution examines this peculiar position of OIGs, recognizing that “despite their admirable role and mission, OIGs are often viewed quite skeptically within government. Congress laments that they are politicized arms of presidents, interested more in cover-ups than transparency. Agency officials, at times, have rocky relationships with OIGs, seeing them more as an executive branch version of a “rat squad.” Some agencies have impeded OIG investigations, slowing down reports and hindering the work that OIGs do.”[3] (Here is a story on EPA’s homeland security office interfering with an OIG investigation).

Art does not believe that Congress laments the OIG in this way, but instead assures that Congress relies on the OIG to assist in their job of oversight. He does acknowledge that in some cases OIGs have allowed their independence to be compromised and therefore cannot carry out their jobs with full integrity. He holds the virtue of remaining independent highly, stating that when one is truly independent, “no one can manipulate what [the OIG] is going to do or say, not the [EPA] or Congress.” He further attributes that his independence allows him to make the tough decisions.

Also highlighted in the Brookings Institution article “Sometimes Cutting Budgets Raise Deficits: The Curious Case of Inspectors’ General Return on Investment,” Offices of Inspectors General have positive returns on investment. This refers to the OIG’s ratio of receivables to the costs. According to this source, the EPA’s OIG is able to capture $3.12 for every dollar it spends, demonstrating that it is rather efficient at its job (See the table below of other OIG ROI). Art has some concern with the OIG’s ability to continue to carry out such work in light of recent budget cuts.

His biggest concern surrounds the financial security and stability of the office. He considers the office highly people dependent, attributing a larger OIG with more capability to conduct dynamic reports aside from the reports that are required by law. With the staff continually shrinking, Art recalls that the staff was just above 400 before his time, the OIG is now only an office of 307. Each year budget cuts threaten the office; with fewer employees there is less ability to carry out dynamic reports.             

During my time in the EPA’s OIG, I have been involved with the preliminary research on a program evaluation regarding Reducing Taxpayer Liability in Environmental Clean Ups (memo issued on May 28, 2015 to notify EPA that the OIG is beginning work on the topic). In many cases, polluters or potential responsible parties of a hazardous waste site do not have adequate funds to carry out the duties to remediate or abate the contamination. In these cases, taxpayer money funds the full or remaining portion of the clean-up cost.

A recent news article details the situation currently taking place in Pompton Lakes, NJ related to the polluter liability to pay for an environmental clean-up. Though a clean-up protocol has been determined in the area, residents fear that the responsible party, DuPont, will not be able to cover the full cost of the clean-up. In addition, they feel the clean-up is not sufficient. The residents also believe that widespread cancers in the community are the result of the contamination in their town, initially brought to attention in 1982.

Visit the OIG’s website for more reports available to the public. One case in particular that has stirred up lots of controversy is the Beale case, an EPA employee who claimed to be a CIA agent and managed to steal almost $900,000 in taxpayer dollars.

  [1] Ginsberg, Wendy, and Michael Greene. United States. Congressional Research Service. Federal Inspectors General: History, Characteristics, and Recent Congressional Actions. Washington: GP0, 2014. Print.

  [2] Office of the Inspector General. “About the Office of the Inspector General”. DC.gov. Web. 12 July 2015. http://oig.dc.gov/page/about-office-inspector-general

  [3] Hudak, John, and Grace Wallack. “Sometimes Cutting Budgets raise Deficits: The Curious Case of the inspectors’ General Return on Investment.” April 2015. The Brookings Institution. Web. 7 July 2015.

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