The Uproar at the EPA: Robert Martin Claims He Was Forced out as Ombudsman to the Environmental Protection Agency after Launching an Internal Probe of Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, Whom He Accuses of Possible Conflicts of Interest

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Christie Todd Whitman is in the hot seat in her role as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and it is hard to imagine radical environmentalists giving her a moment's peace. But that could be the least of her problems. INSIGHT has learned that allegations against her are being investigated by the agency's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), with the assistance of the FBI, and may turn into a scandal involving personal ethics.

The smoldering controversy centers on the financial holdings of Whitman, a Republican former governor of New Jersey, and her husband, John, a businessman with strong ties to Citicorp, a division of Citigroup, and related companies with business before the EPA. In fact that giant insurance and banking conglomerate stands to lose many millions of dollars if EPA applies more stringent environmental standards involving a Superfund cleanup near Denver or expands the disaster zone at the World Trade Center to include the broad area of lower Manhattan that environmental scientists say has been polluted by the collapse of the twin towers.

These are the foundation of the conflict-of-interest claims made by Robert Martin. The recently resigned EPA ombudsman says he was forced out because he launched an internal probe of Whitman following EPA policy anomalies that complainants say may have been tainted by concern for the administrator's personal finances.

These are strong charges indeed, complicated by a messy public baffle between Martin and Whitman when she acted to move the ombudsman from the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to the OIG. Whitman has said the move was made to raise the profile of Martin's office and to give it investigative teeth provided not by its own independent investigators but by the OIG people under the more direct supervision of the administrator. Her spokesmen also vehemently deny the conflict-of-interest charges leveled by Martin and senior EPA investigator Hugh Kaufman, among others, who have been raising these issues internally for months.

Martin in the meantime has quit his ombudsman post in protest at being reassigned "to answer the phone at OIG." He insists he has been the target of retaliation because of the probe he launched into Whitman's personal holdings and complaints he lodged about alleged underestimates of Superfund cleanup costs in Denver and pollution problems related to the attacks on the twin towers in New York City. An unlikely ally for Martin has been Dwight Welch, executive vice president of the EPA chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union. He, too, thinks the root of the ombudsman's problems is agency retaliation for his challenge to Whitman -- challenges by others that were in fact his job as ombudsman to present.

A review of Whitman's most recent financial-disclosure statement shows that she and her husband do, indeed, have $100,000 to $250,000 in investments with Citigroup, the parent organization of the S.W. Shattuck Chemical Co. near Denver. Some critics say Whitman settled a dispute involving Shattuck on terms too favorable to the chemical company.

According to an EPA press statement, the EPA placed the Shattuck facility on the Superfund National Priorities List in 1983. Under the Clinton administration Whitman's predecessor, Carol Browner, negotiated a settlement with Shattuck that required the company to pay $26 million to entomb the contaminated waste at the site.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) balked at what the EPA considered a satisfactory resolution. But the agency turned down their requests to meet with citizens who had complained for 10 years that the remedy was inadequate and did not properly dispose of contamination from the site.

Undeterred, Allard put a hold on all EPA nominations and secured an ombudsman investigation, which verified the citizens' concerns and showed the flaws in the EPA remedy. …