EPA watchdog says Trump appointees kept fired employees on payroll

Federal prosecutors declined to press charges over any of the OIG’s findings, and both men have since left the agency — Jackson in February 2020 to be vice president for government and political affairs at the National Mining Association, and Munoz on Jan. 20, when the Biden administration took office.

Jackson and Munoz did not immediately return requests for comment on Friday.

The new OIG report, which is heavily redacted to hide the identities of the two EPA employees who continued to be paid after departing the agency, explicitly faults Jackson and Munoz for improper actions that cost the agency significant sums.

Details available in the report show that one of the two anonymous employees was fired from EPA in 2017. Munoz told investigators Jackson directed him to ensure the person continued receiving their salary after their firing.

“Mr. Munoz explained that the ‘fix,' which he believed was Mr. Jackson's idea, was to tell the EPA's Human Resources Management Division that [the person] was on an extended telework schedule so that [they] would receive pay” after their termination, the report said. “Mr. Munoz explained that he believed Mr. Jackson would not be happy if he had not followed Mr. Jackson's order to get additional pay for [the person] after [their] termination.”

Federal law does not allow for severance pay, something Jackson and Munoz acknowledged to investigators in voluntary interviews that they knew.

In a July 2019 interview, Jackson told investigators that he took that action because he “didn't think it was really fair to [the person] what was going down.”

The report also says that a second employee in 2018 was ordered to resign, but the person refused and was escorted from the building by an armed guard, according to the report. Jackson’s explanation for why the person was forced out is redacted in the report, but Jackson told investigators he continued to provide them salaried pay “to avoid a ‘break in service’” so they could search for another federal job.

Altogether, the first person improperly received $14,181.38 after their termination, while the second got a total of $23,731.85.

Jackson, a longtime Republican Hill staffer before joining EPA, managed to avoid getting caught up in the series of ethics scandals that led to former Administrator Scott Pruitt’s resignation in 2018. The new report, which was finalized in March and has not been reported on before, sheds additional light on Jackson’s bitter relationship with the EPA’s internal watchdog.

Their animosity spilled into public in late 2019 after the OIG took the rare step of publicly accusing Jackson of stonewalling a separate investigation into whether he pressured an outside scientist who chaired an advisory panel to change her testimony before Congress.

The report indicates the OIG had already been probing Jackson over the pay issues when that separate investigation blew up. Other Trump political appointees at the time backed up Jackson, with Matt Leopold, then the general counsel, issuing a memo arguing that the OIG's quest to determine how exactly Jackson had obtained the scientist's testimony did not serve its watchdog role. (The Biden administration in April withdrew that memo.)

In addition to his public fight with the EPA OIG, the Interior Department's inspector general separately revealed last year that Jackson had directed the hiring of a top Interior official's son-in-law for a job at EPA. The son-in-law was terminated just five months later for unspecified “misconduct,” POLITICO reported in August.

The new OIG report also dinged Munoz for receiving an improper raise and allegedly committing time-and-attendance misconduct.

In May 2018, Jackson created a new position for Munoz of senior adviser to the regional administrator for EPA's Pacific southwest region, headquartered in San Francisco. However, Munoz's assigned duty station was Las Vegas, his hometown and where he was the Trump campaign's Nevada state director. EPA maintains a finance center in the city.

Federal regulations did not permit a new appointment such as Munoz's to come with an increase in salary, but Jackson gave Munoz a four-step raise at that time, the OIG found. Altogether it cost the federal government $40,575.11 through Nov. 7, 2020, after which Munoz was converted to a “Senior Level pay scale” until he resigned on Jan. 20, the report said.

The OIG scrutinized whether Munoz reported to his official duty station and determined that Munoz “provided false information” about his work for 14 of the 15 pay periods between May and December 2018.

Reviews of phone and email logs and other records often showed he often was not present at EPA's Las Vegas office. Among other things, the OIG found Munoz had kept DMV appointments and met a furniture delivery at his home during purported work times.

“Mr. Munoz admitted to us that he knew to tell” a redacted agency employee “he was working in the Las Vegas Finance Center to ensure she would not ask further questions about where he was during the pay period,” the report said. “EPA employees assigned to the Las Vegas Finance Center provided statements that described Mr. Munoz as not being in the office most days. According to [redacted sources], when Mr. Munoz came into the office he departed around midday or during lunch and did not return.” Munoz told investigators he would “consider himself working because he was accessible by phone when not in the office.”

The total loss to EPA for Munoz's alleged misconduct was $55,150.44, according to the report, which only studied his activities for the May-December 2018 period.

With both men gone from the agency and federal prosecutors declining to press charges, the OIG report was “provided to EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan for any action deemed appropriate.”

“EPA will review the report,” agency spokesperson Tim Carroll said in a statement.

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