No Retreat for Veteran EPA Whistleblower in Era of 'Harsher and Vicious' Retaliation
- January 6, 2011
U.S. EPA senior policy analyst Hugh Kaufman, a kind of living legend in the world of federal whistleblowers, was disappointed this week when he read of California Republican Darrell Issa's plans to make the Wikileaks controversy a top issue for his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the 112th Congress.
But not for the reasons you might expect.
Kaufman, who served six years in the Air Force before leaving as a captain to join the fledgling EPA in 1971, said there may be a reason to investigate the Wikileaks scandal to protect national security. But he objects to Issa's planned hearings because he believes the Oversight panel's chairman is turning a committee that is supposed to serve as Congress' watchdog into a panel for partisan witch hunts.
"He is not a serious man," Kaufman said of Issa. "He is powerful and he is dangerous, so he has to be taken seriously, but he is not a serious person."
Strong words? Sure. But the quotable Kaufman, a Washington, D.C., native whose father was a mathematician for the Department of Commerce and whose daughter is in the Peace Corps, has never been one to shy away from controversy.
In his 40 years at EPA, Kaufman, 68, has been involved in a half dozen of the most high profile whistleblower cases that have come out of the agency. He has gone toe-to-toe with top administration officials, been tailed by investigators at the request of agency brass and, for the past decade, has been involved in a retaliation suit that at one point saw EPA lawyers file 5,800 pages' worth of documents in response to his discovery requests.
While he has been called a hero by some environmental activists, he has also been described as "a publicity hound of the highest order" by a former agency spokesman with whom he tangled.
A former EPA staffer who spent decades at the agency said he remembered Kaufman more for his cult of personality rather than for any issues that he championed.
Kaufman said this week that he has sympathy for Bradley Manning, the Army soldier at the heart of the Wikileaks scandal, and he questions whether the government has overstepped its bounds in punishing him. But he believes Manning's actions are different from the whistleblowing he has done at EPA.
"The stuff domestically that I deal with and others deal with, there is no security clearance question at all in terms of impacting foreign policy," Kaufman said.
But Kaufman said Issa's comments in a television interview Sunday that the Obama administration is one of the "most corrupt" in modern times, is a clear indication that the House Oversight panel is in the hands of a man for whom politics trumps integrity.
"Obama and his administration are politicians but they are hardly corrupt," Kaufman said. "I worked in the Nixon administration. I know what corrupt is. These guys aren't corrupt."
Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella objected to Kaufman's assessment of the committee's interest in Wikileaks.
"Both Democrats and Republicans have said that Wikileaks is damaging, dangerous and impacts our foreign policy," Bardella said. "There's nothing partisan or political about asking the question, 'What is our readiness?'"
Bardella also questioned Kaufman's credibility.
"People are entitled to speak from ignorant positions," he said.
Lest you think Kaufman is a partisan himself, he has plenty of criticism for Democratic leaders too.
Last month, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released a memo to the heads of all federal agencies that lays out the minimum standards the White House expects as departments craft new rules to ensure that government scientists' work is not altered for political purposes. The scientific integrity memo, which was released 18 months after its original deadline, received mixed reaction in the scientific and advocacy community, but most viewed it as a step in the right direction.
Kaufman does not put much stock in the effort.
"Politics trumps integrity," he said. "The appointees are going to want to protect their ability to make decisions no matter what the facts dictate. ... These things are developed to merely give as much flexibility as possible to those who run the agencies."
It was not the first time Kaufman has criticized the Obama administration. In the wake of last summer's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Kaufman, who works in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, went to the media to express his concern that federal authorities were not doing enough to protect the workers who were tasked with cleaning up the mess.
"There's no way you can be working in that toxic soup without getting exposures," Kaufman told The Washington Post last summer. Kaufman said the threat was similar to the previous hazards faced by workers during the World Trade Center cleanup.
"It's unbelievable what's going on," Kaufman said. "It's like déjà vu all over again."
A decade ago, Kaufman helped lead an investigation into EPA's efforts to cover up the hazards at Ground Zero in Manhattan in his role as chief investigator for EPA's ombudsman office. The independent inquiry by Kaufman and former EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin garnered plenty of attention, even after it was shut down when the ombudsman's office was eliminated by EPA management.
Kaufman has since been involved in a lengthy retaliation suit that is currently on appeal before a Department of Labor administrative law judge. But his and Martin's work has been celebrated in the whistleblower community. Last year he and Martin were prominently featured in the book "Toxic Loopholes: Failures and Future Prospects for Environmental Law," by Craig Collins, who teaches environmental law at California State University, East Bay.
But some former agency officials say they saw little value in what Kaufman tried to do.
"He was masterful in ginning up controversial issues within the agency," said Ed Krenik, who served as the head of EPA's congressional and intergovernmental relations from 2000 to 2003. "Hugh saw a controversial issue and never shied away from it. But in the end I don't know what he ever accomplished. I don't know where the value added was."
Inoculated by 1980s clash?
With his outspoken ways, one might wonder how Kaufman has lasted four decades at EPA.
Several theories exist on that subject, including Kaufman's firm belief that it has been a mixture of "dumb luck" and always being right.
Gary Baise, a lawyer who served as EPA's first chief of staff, said it is probably not quite as black and white as that.
"My impression is there's always been a kernel of truth in what the guy's saying," Baise said. "You may disagree with him and he may not have his facts exact but he's not lying."
Baise, who went on to serve in top positions at the FBI and Justice Department after he left EPA, added that Kaufman was also very careful when did his whistleblowing by traveling on his own time and using his own money when he makes media appearances.
There is also the theory that Kaufman may have inoculated himself from future retaliation after taking on, and beating, agency officials in the controversy that eventually led to the resignation of Administrator Ann Gorsuch in 1983.
During her time as administrator, Gorsuch was blamed by environmentalists for cutting EPA's budget, curtailing its enforcement power and delaying funding for Superfund cleanups of hazardous-waste sites. Gorsuch stepped down after receiving a contempt citation from Congress for refusing to cooperate with an investigation involving subpoenaed Superfund documents.
At the time, Kaufman firmly established his reputation as a whistleblower by criticizing EPA's performance handling hazardous-waste issues.
As the controversy around Gorsuch grew, Ronald Reagan's White House fired one of her top aides, who was being investigated by a congressional committee after she denied that she had harassed Kaufman, had him followed and wanted him fired. The aide, Rita Lavelle, was eventually convicted of perjury.
Some insiders believe Kaufman gained protection within EPA and future job security by settling the suit he filed against the agency over the controversy.
"Whistleblowers may do a public service, but more often than not they pay a huge personal and professional price for having engaged in it," said former EPA general counsel and Deputy Administrator Jim Barnes who teaches a class in professional ethics at Indiana University. "But I think [Kaufman] is one of the exceptions."
Barnes said whistleblowing most often occurs when those in an organization perceive there are inadequate opportunities to raise dissenting views or to have wrongdoing or issues of fairness addressed internally.
"This appears to have been the situation in EPA in the early 1980s," he said.
Barnes said he believes that by surviving the efforts by Lavelle and other agency officials to oust him in 1982 and 1983, Kaufman inoculated himself against any restraint or retaliation by subsequent agency leaders on his whistleblowing activities.
"If you go after the king you better make sure you get him," Barnes said. "They were not successful and, as a result, [Kaufman] got immunity to operate in the future."
Barnes, who rejoined the agency in 1983 after Gorsuch's departure, said Kaufman was given some room to operate even if he occasionally caused headaches for the agency.
"It was often a little unclear whether he was speaking out as a private citizen or whether he was portraying himself as someone speaking as a representative of the EPA," Barnes said. "But, where the insights he offered were on target and well-founded, it made sense to take them into account. It would be a mistake to be dismissive of everything he -- or any other whistleblower -- says. One should focus on the content and not just on the characterization of the communicator."
'Bureaucracy goes on'
Kaufman, who still lives in Washington and is an avid local sports fan, does not see a bright future for whistleblowers like himself. But he also does not plan to curtail his own efforts any time soon.
"If something hits at EPA in the areas I have familiarity ... and if getting the word out to the public can help get that problem fixed, then you blow the whistle," he said.
But he believes it has become harder to be a whistleblower because government institutions have become much more cunning in dealing with those who speak out.
"I think the ability to survive the retaliation is harder," he said. "The level of hardball being played is much harsher and vicious."
And the proof of that, he said, is that incidences of whistleblowing have been in a steady decline.
"The bureaucracy goes on no matter who is in charge at the White House," Kaufman said. "One thing that many politicians agree on whether they are lefties or tea baggers or anything in between is they don't like whistleblowing. It tends to get in the way of political dogma."