In Defense of the EPA, but not the Indefensible

imagesCAAUKO6QAdmittedly, I’ve been reluctant to talk openly about it.  Not because it didn’t warrant discussion, but because of the embarrassment and humiliation it has caused so many, including my friends.  For those outside of the DC Beltway or those who may not engage in daily armchair politics, you may not have heard about it, but the story reads sort of like a Grisham novel, although one where you flip to the last chapter and last page, only to learn that Jake Brigance isn’t really the hero you thought him to be.

John Beale is a long-serving senior EPA official, and who many viewed as the model public servant.  John Gaynor over at the Washingtonian wrote about this intriguing yet tragic tale in The Suit Who Spooked the EPA.

To his colleagues at the Environmental Protection Agency, John Beale was always a man of great import. Beginning in the early 1990s, he enjoyed one policymaking triumph after another, eventually establishing himself as a towering figure within the agency. He also possessed a certain mystique. It was an open secret in the office, yet only whispered: Beale led a double life as a covert agent for the CIA.

As it turns out, however, Beale was not a covert agent, but rather an AWOL public servant who was cheating the system and defrauding the American public of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Beale now sits in jail for the next 32 months as recompense for his misdeeds.   I did not know Beale personally, but had a few insignificant interactions with him while I was at the Agency, all of them seemingly pleasant.

The greater tragedy of this story is more than just one man’s fall from grace, it is the harm and embarrassment he has brought upon so many decent public servants and the EPA itself, which has become fodder for scorn, ridicule, and late night comedy.   And if we are to dig deeper, I think this story reflects the darker side of large bureaucracies and their innate weaknesses.

I give great credit to Administrator, Gina McCarthy, and her deputy, Bob Perciasepe, who are proactively and ably dealing with this difficult matter – which went undetected during the Bush Administration – including the bigger effort to reform and bring greater accountability to an Agency where accountability has not always been present.  And, in fact, federal agencies, whether the EPA, DOJ or IRS for that matter, do not take kindly to being held accountable, which is often symptomatic of a culture in need of change.  And just as the EPA holds the public to account for its behavior, we too should expect nothing less from the Agency, to account for its own actions or inactions.

Working at EPA was a great honor and a highlight of my professional career.  And I know my colleagues here at Conservefewell who served at EPA feel the same way.  Bureaucracies, like EPA, are filled with many good, decent, hard-working public servants, who desire nothing more, or less, than to help advance the public good.  I know them, I worked with them, and am grateful to consider many of them as friends.  Then, there is a minority, like Beale, who, somewhere along their journey lose their way and navigate deep within the bowels of an institutional behemoth, undetected and often beyond reach of accountability.  It’s an unfortunate circumstance, but sadly Beale is not the only one of his kind.   For my friends at EPA, those in the trenches, I say hold strong, you’ll survive this rocky period just as you have other dark chapters.  Continue to believe in the Agency’s mission and the importance of the work you do, but, more importantly, summon the courage to speak up and change the indefensible, those elements of the Agency that must change.  Change must come from within, or surely it will come from without.