Ethics Troubles Mount for Whitman; Christie Todd Whitman Is under Growing Scrutiny for Her Reassignment of EPA's Ombudsman and Conflicts of Interest regarding Cleanup of Ground Zero in New York. (Nation: Environmental Protection Agency)

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The pushing and shoving among the powerful at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not abated, but those potentially hazardous materials emanating from lower Manhattan about which INSIGHT warned two weeks ago are beginning to be taken seriously (see "The Uproar at the EPA" May 27).

At a press conference in Washington two days after that cover story was released, EPA officials made a stunning reversal on the agency's policy not to lead the cleanup effort for buildings in lower Manhattan heavily dusted with toxic debris after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC). Eight months after the fact, and with the INSIGHT story buzzing the town, EPA Region 2 officials announced a "comprehensive plan" to ensure that apartments affected by the collapse of the WTC were properly cleaned.

As this magazine reported, EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman was at the time being criticized severely about the agency's high-handed reassignment of EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin, forcing his resignation. Because of the INSIGHT report, decisions about Martin also may be revised.

A well-informed government source hints the ombudsman could be reinstated --if only to complete the investigations of his open cases and avoid the appearance of retaliation for his raising of concern about financial conflicts of interest by Whitman involving toxic cleanups in lower Manhattan and elsewhere. Another source indicates that the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) now may approve Martin's request for a stay of Whitman's November 2001 decision to reassign his office.

Whatever the outcome, Whitman's order to transfer Martin into the EPA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) widely was regarded as retaliation. Martin asserted that the reassignment would make the ombudsman dependent on an OIG with a reputation for being weak, and he said so loud and clear.

At the time of the reassignment decision, the ombudsman was investigating allegations that Whitman had failed to recuse herself from cases in which she or her family had financial interests. Documents obtained by INSIGHT raise still more questions.

On Jan. 19, 2001, when Whitman was the nominee to be EPA administrator, she agreed to recuse herself from cases that would present potential for conflicts of interest. In an ethics-agreement letter to Anna Wolgast, the EPA's designated agency ethics official, Whitman wrote: "Unless I obtain a waver [sic] under 208(b) (1), I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that has a direct and predictable bond effect on the ability or willingness of the following entities to honor their bond obligations: Bergen County New Jersey Utilities Authority; the New Jersey Wastewater Treatment Trust; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; the Delaware River Authority; and the Puerto Rico Industrial, Medical and Environmental Poll."

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owned the WTC and leased the land that now is ground zero. According to a transcript of an April 9 investor teleconference, the Port Authority incurred $1.38 billion in losses as a result of the destruction of the WTC. Officials expressed optimism that the authority's pre-Sept. 11 financial base ultimately would allow it to absorb the damage. But it is not clear whether that remains the case if liability for a toxic cleanup of the whole of lower Manhattan were to be added to the burden; the value of bonds and other investments in which Whitman and her family had substantial interests would plummet.

Nevertheless, at a Nov. 28, 2001 hearing Whitman testified on the status of the WTC cleanup before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on VA-HUD and Independent Agencies. She assured the panel that under the provisions of Presidential Decision Directive 62, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, "the EPA is assigned lead responsibility for cleaning up buildings and other sites contaminated by chemical or biological agents as a result of an act of terrorism" After testing air and dust in the destruction zone, EPA officials, under the authority of Whitman, assured the public that the boroughs surrounding the WTC were safe from any "significant" levels of asbestos. …