Senators to question Trump’s inspector general pick

Source: By Kevin Bogardus, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, October 28, 2019

On Wednesday, Sean O’Donnell, a career trial attorney at the Department of Justice, is set to appear before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for his confirmation hearing.

The job as EPA’s next internal watchdog is a sensitive one. The inspector general roots out waste and fraud at EPA and can butt heads with the agency’s leadership. The IG position hasn’t been filled with a Senate-confirmed appointee for more than a year.

Democrats on the panel, which oversees EPA, want the agency’s IG office to launch investigations into Trump’s political appointees.

This includes former Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned in the wake of numerous ethics allegations in July 2018.

The IG did open several reviews into Pruitt — some of which dinged the ex-EPA boss, while others were closed due to his departure from EPA, much to Democrats’ chagrin.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee’s ranking member, was one of several EPW Democrats to push for those investigations into Pruitt’s mismanagement at EPA.

He is expected to ask O’Donnell how he believes the IG should handle investigations after EPA officials being investigated leave the agency, a Carper spokeswoman told E&E News.

In response to an EPA IG report earlier this year that found the agency spent nearly $124,000 in “excessive costs” for the ex-administrator’s first-class and business travel, Carper and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) urged EPA to recover the expenses.

“Resigning in disgrace shouldn’t let you off the hook for unprecedented unethical behavior,” they said at the time.

The EPA IG nominee may face questions over the watchdog office’s moves to close this case as well as others. Earl Devaney, who served as the Department of the Interior’s IG, expects O’Donnell’s hearing to be “pretty partisan.”

“I assume the Democrats will tell him how bad it is at EPA and he needs to go and clean it up. The Republicans will say how great it is and wish him good luck,” Devaney said.

Other EPA IG cases involving Pruitt were also closed. These included his renting of a Capitol Hill condo tied to a lobbyist with business before EPA as well as having agency aides help with his personal tasks, such as trying to secure his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise.

Those cases were deemed “inconclusive” after investigators failed to interview Pruitt before his resignation, according to a semiannual report last year.

Another review was launched to probe Pruitt’s handling of Freedom of Information Act requests and public records. But by the time the report was released more than a year after Pruitt’s departure, it did not end up examining those allegations.

“It’s deeply disappointing to learn that the EPA Inspector General never even looked into what appeared to be flagrant violations of public records laws by Mr. Pruitt,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), another EPW member, said in a statement at the time.

He had joined Carper in asking the IG to investigate those charges against Pruitt, which partially triggered the audit (Greenwire, Aug. 27).

‘Pretty safe nomination’

Republicans look ready to support O’Donnell. A spokeswoman for Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the EPW Committee’s chairman, said he is backing the nominee.

“Chairman Barrasso believes the EPA needs a Senate-confirmed inspector general in place as soon as possible, and he supports Mr. O’Donnell’s nomination,” said Sarah Durdaller, the Barrasso spokeswoman.

Acting EPA IG Charles Sheehan has been leading the watchdog office since October last year, when Arthur Elkins, the previous EPA inspector general, retired from the agency and joined the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission as its first IG.

O’Donnell has been at the Justice Department since 2005. He is now in its criminal division, where he has worked on cases involving money laundering, foreign corruption as well as economic and trade sanctions.

O’Donnell also did a detail in 2017 in Justice’s Office of Legal Policy, where he helped vet Trump’s judicial nominations and supported the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, according to his LinkedIn profile.

IGs at Cabinet-level departments and major agencies, such as EPA, go through a Senate confirmation process but have to keep their distance from politics. Many go on to serve under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Al Larsen, who served as counsel to the EPA IG before retiring last year, said an inspector general’s work should not be in support of the president who nominates him or her.

“You’re not there to advance the White House or the administration’s initiatives,” Larsen said. “The keys for an IG are independence and integrity.”

Gregory Friedman, who served as IG at the Department of Energy, said the watchdog job is one that requires balancing various interests.

“One of the biggest challenges facing a new IG is finding the right balance between maintaining your independence as well as maintaining an effective relationship with your agency’s leadership as well as the Congress,” said Friedman, now a distinguished executive in residence at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University.

Devaney said O’Donnell’s nomination should fit the bill for an IG. “It’s a pretty safe nomination for the White House to pick a prosecutor who has been working at the Justice Department for several administrations. He shouldn’t garnish any ill winds,” he said.

Nikki Tinsley, a former EPA inspector general, advised O’Donnell to not worry about appearing “all-knowing” at his confirmation hearing.

“I would suggest advising the members that he is and will be unbiased and independent, and since he is not an expert, will be happy to provide responses for the record to any challenging questions,” she said.

Devaney echoed similar sentiments, noting senators will ask specific questions of O’Donnell. “He’s going to say, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ That’s what I said about eight times,” Devaney said.