PPT Finds Big Holes in Ethics Official’s Defense of Former EPA Lawyer at Center of Ethics Scandal

PPT Finds Big Holes in Ethics Official’s Defense of Former EPA Lawyer at Center of Ethics Scandal

  • March 22, 2024
Watchdog files complaint over missing details in Superfund ethics case

Government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) announced today a major development in its investigation into an apparent ethics scandal affecting the nation’s most expensive projected Superfund cleanup. PPT has alleged that a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official is violating the “Lifetime Ban” by working on an issue he was involved with as an agency employee. Compounding the scandal, PPT has learned that an EPA ethics official who stepped in to dismiss the original allegations omitted critical details necessary to properly evaluate the watchdog’s concerns.

PPT filed a complaint with the EPA Inspector General nearly a year ago regarding former agency official David Batson, a senior alternative dispute resolution (ADR) specialist and ADR counsel who was involved with the Diamond Alkali Superfund site during his tenure at EPA. Batson continued his involvement after leaving the agency in 2015.

Recently obtained records show that when the EPA received PPT’s complaint, the head of the agency’s ethics office, Justina Fugh, defended Mr. Batson but omitted important facts. The errors were so significant that PPT submitted a supplemental complaint with the Inspector General.

The supplemental complaint rebuts four erroneous claims Ms. Fugh made in her defense of the embattled former official. The core of the complaint and the latest PPT filing concerns Mr. Batson’s role in seeking to inappropriately impact the major financial interests of more than a dozen private parties he once dealt with on the same matter while a federal employee. As the supplemental complaint states:

[T]he most glaring misstatement of fact [by EPA ethics official Justina Fugh] is that the two periods of work did not involve the same set of potentially responsible parties (PRPs)… [Yet] at least 14 specific parties that Mr. Batson engaged while working on the matter in 2004 remain affected PRPs whose rights and liabilities Mr. Batson’s Allocation Recommendation Report attempts to impact today… To put a finer point on it, the percentage of total liability that AlterEcho/Mr. Batson’s Final Allocation Recommendation Report assigns to the 14 overlapping parties equals roughly 96.9% ($1.76B) of the nearly $1.8 billion estimated cleanup costs at the Site!

The importance of this matter extends well beyond the underlying matter or the Superfund program. The planned distribution and administration of tens of billions of dollars in new programs funded by the Inflation Reduction Act puts a premium on EPA transparency and trustworthiness. The behavior of the ethics office also raises red flags reminiscent of other instances documented by PPT over the past few years. Notably, Ms. Fugh and her office appear to have provided cover for Biden administration appointees’ ethics violations, disregarding well-established standards of integrity and offering lax enforcement of agency rules.

It remains unclear at what stage the EPA Inspector General’s investigation is in or the degree to which the flawed analysis has factored.

“Government prohibition against self-dealing, switching sides, and avoiding conflicts of interest probably seem obvious to most Americans,” said PPT Director Michael Chamberlain. “The public would also expect that those individuals charged with enforcing those rules and holding officials to account would be sure to carefully evaluate all the facts before dismissing valid concerns. However, as PPT continues to encounter incident after incident at EPA, this may be too much to hope for.”