Environmental Protection Agency: Recent Policy Could Improve Working Relations between EPA's Office of Inspector General and Office of Homeland Security

GAO-20-89R Published: Oct 30, 2019. Publicly Released: Dec 02, 2019.
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Fast Facts

For at least 7 years, EPA’s Office of Inspector General and its Office of Homeland Security—set up after 9/11 to address terrorism threats—have clashed over responsibility for certain national security matters. In May 2019, EPA finalized a new policy on intelligence operations, in part to help improve the offices’ working relations on these issues.

We found that the offices’ key activities seldom overlap, except when national security concerns are involved. We also found that the offices generally have not coordinated in this area. The recent policy clarified responsibilities. However, it is too early to assess the policy’s effect.

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What GAO Found

In the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), key activities of the Offices of Inspector General (OIG) and Homeland Security (OHS) seldom overlap except for investigations and preliminary inquiries related to national security involving agency employee misconduct, according to agency officials and documents. EPA's new policy, Order 3230–Intelligence Operations, finalized in May 2019, clarifies responsibility for these activities. Key OIG activities include conducting independent audits, evaluations, and investigations; making evidence-based recommendations to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness; and preventing and detecting fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement, and misconduct, according to OIG documents and officials. In contrast, OHS activities are more narrowly focused on national security. For example, OHS provides technical expertise to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help protect against possible terrorist attacks on the nation's water and wastewater treatment plants. Key OHS activities include advising senior agency leadership on national security and homeland security, coordinating with White House offices and federal agencies that have homeland security missions, leading and coordinating EPA homeland security programs, and operating EPA's Intelligence Program, according to OHS documents and officials.

Agency officials told GAO that OIG and OHS generally have not coordinated their overlapping activities for investigations and preliminary inquiries related to national security involving agency employee misconduct. However, GAO found that the new policy may increase future coordination on these activities. The new policy clarifies roles and responsibilities and defines key activities conducted by the offices, which is consistent with leading collaboration practices. It also provides written guidance for information sharing across OIG, OHS, and other offices. OHS officials told GAO that they are developing an implementation plan for the new policy, including information-sharing protocols to improve coordination between the two offices on preliminary inquiries. According to OHS officials, they will develop these protocols with input from OIG and EPA's Office of General Counsel.

Since EPA has only recently implemented and finalized Order 3230, it is too early to determine whether the order will increase collaboration between OIG and OHS. However, officials from EPA's OIG, OHS, and Office of General Counsel all expressed optimism that the new order would improve overall working relations between OIG and OHS.

Why GAO Did This Study

Conflict between EPA's OIG and OHS with respect to their jurisdiction over certain activities has existed for at least 7 years, according to agency officials.

EPA's OIG was established by the Inspector General Act of 1978 to audit and investigate EPA programs and operations and to detect and prevent fraud and abuse in them. OIG operates as an independent office within EPA and receives an appropriation separately from the agency. By statute, the Inspector General reports only to, or is subject to general supervision by, the EPA Administrator or Deputy Administrator. In contrast, OHS was established by an EPA Administrator memorandum in 2003, and OHS' mission is to coordinate EPA's planning, prevention, and response to homeland security-related incidents, such as threats to water and wastewater treatment facilities. OHS also supports the U.S. intelligence community by, for example, sharing technical expertise.

Despite various attempts to improve working relations, conflict has persisted between the two offices, according to OIG and OHS officials. In May 2019, the EPA Administrator approved Order 3230 to, among other things, help improve the working relationship between the two offices, according to agency officials.

GAO was asked to review issues related to the working relationship between EPA's OIG and OHS. This report examines (1) the key activities of OIG and OHS, the extent these activities overlap, and the responsibility for any overlapping activities and (2) the extent that OIG and OHS have coordinated any overlapping activities. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed OIG and other agency documents—including EPA policies and memoranda—and relevant laws. GAO also interviewed agency officials, including from OIG, OHS, and EPA's Office of General Counsel.

For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.

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