posted on Oct, 15 2004 @ 12:21 PM
Last week, when the House Committee on Government Reform approved new whistle-blower protection legislation, the Bush administration quickly objected,
saying such protections would open the door to gratuitous complaints against its officials.
But the House committee held fast, citing more than a dozen situations like that of Teresa Chambers as evidence that too many federal employees are
being muzzled. Chambers was ousted from her post as chief of the U.S. Park Police after she told the press that her agency didn't have adequate
funding or personnel to keep parks and monuments in Washington, D.C., safe.
In the past four years, the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have both been widely criticized by insiders and the
media for preventing their employees from talking to the press.
The latest developments -- coming just weeks before Election Day -- find the EPA muzzling agency staffers in both the Midwest and Rocky Mountain
regions, directing them to refer all media requests to senior public relations officials.
In early September, Bharat Mathur, head of EPA Region 5 (which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin -- more than a few
key swing states), sent a memo to all regional staff entitled "Working With the Press." "I want to ensure that the Region puts its best face
forward [and] that we speak with a consistent voice," wrote Mathur. He ordered employees to "refrain from answering [press] inquiries directly,"
explaining that this "will prevent EPA management from being surprised by news coverage."
As it so happens, EPA top brass had been unpleasantly "surprised" a few weeks earlier, when the press got wind of EPA scientist Peter Howe's
objections to a plan for a new $2.1 billion coal-fired power plant in Wisconsin and his call for the EPA to intervene. Howe was reprimanded and
suspended for two weeks for allowing his opinions to get out into the public sphere.
Soon thereafter, Washington trade publication Inside EPA got ahold of an email from an official in EPA Region 8, which encompasses a number of Rocky
Mountain states, issuing a similar directive. "[S]ince it is two months before election day there are likely to be plenty more [press inquiries on
environmental matters]," wrote the official. "[H]ere is how to handle inquiries for information that seem partisan: 'NO COMMENT.' Refer the caller
to [press representatives].
Inside EPA reported that the Region 8 edict was directly connected to the Senate race in Colorado between Democrat Ken Salazar and Republican Peter
Coors -- a tight contest featuring controversial figures with strong and opposing views on the environment. The Region 8 email also warned employees
to steer clear of commenting on the "Lowry landfill," a Superfund site with groundwater contamination that has been held up as a bad example by
those who accuse the Bush administration of dropping the ball on toxic-site cleanups.
Former EPA employee Sylvia Lowrance, who worked at the agency for more than two decades, called the EPA media policy unprecedented. Even more
peculiar, she said, is the timing. "These are the sorts of protocol memos that are supposed to be released at the beginning of an administration, not
at the tail end of the term."