EPA paid $14.5 million for foreign nationals, not Americans, to work in government labs

By Michael Bastasch

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) paid $14.5 million to foreign nationals to work at agency laboratories over the past 11 years that could have been awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, according to federal investigators.

EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found the agency’s cooperative agreement with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) funded 107 fellowships to “foreign nationals or persons who were not citizens or permanent residents of the United States.”

“Allowing foreign nationals to participate in the fellowships is inconsistent with the EPA practice of awarding fellowships to U.S. citizens, which is required for the EPA’s directly awarded fellowships,” OIG reported Wednesday.

EPA’s cooperative agreement with NAS began in 2007 and lasted until 2017, so it spanned multiple administrations. In that time, EPA has come under criticism for wasting taxpayers dollars.

Federal auditors found in 2014 that eight EPA employees racked up 20,926 hours on paid leave “and cost the government an estimated $1,096,868.” Each “was on extended administrative leave for four or more months,” auditors found.

The Government Accountability Office noted in a 2014 report the “salary cost for EPA employees on administrative leave for fiscal years (FYs) 2011 through 2013 was $17,550,100.”

Most notably, former EPA official John Beale stole nearly $900,000 from taxpayers while pretending to be a CIA agent. EPA discovered Beale’s fraud in 2013, and the former official served 16 months in prison before being released in April 2016 to a halfway house in Philadelphia.

Most NAS fellowships went to foreign nationals, despite EPA requiring “U.S. citizenship or permanent residency” when it “directly awards fellowships,” reads OIG’s report.

NAS fellows “are postdoctoral and senior scientists and engineers who serve as guest researchers at EPA laboratories,” OIG reported. When their fellowship is ended “that gained knowledge often leaves the United States because the fellows return to their countries,” OIG noted.

“However, the EPA does not specify citizenship requirements for fellowships awarded through cooperative agreements” because the agency “did not believe [they could] establish criteria for spending federal funds for fellowships awarded through cooperative agreements,” OIG reported.

“We believe the taxpayer dollars will be put to better use if the EPA’s cooperative agreements included the same citizenship requirements for fellowships,” OIG reported.

NAS was only one of three nonprofit organizations EPA entered into cooperative agreements with to fund research fellows. However, the other two nonprofits tapped required fellows to be U.S. citizens or permanent residents, but NAS did not.

OIG also noted that “[r]eported expenses to the EPA from the other two nonprofit organizations audited were sometimes inaccurate. In the drawdown requests audited, two fellows were overpaid $11,965.”

“Neither the applicable EPA grant specialists nor project officers received any financial documentation to explain why additional funds were requested. Consequently, the EPA was not aware of potential unallowable costs,” reads the report.

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