E.P.A. Watchdog, Citing ‘Open Defiance’ of Inquiries, Rebukes Top Agency Aide

Want climate news in your inbox? Sign up here for Climate Fwd:, our email newsletter.

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog has rebuked the agency’s chief of staff for refusing to cooperate with an inquiry into whether he pressured a scientist to alter her congressional testimony, calling his actions a “flagrant problem” and referring the matter to Congress.

In a letter made public on Wednesday, the E.P.A.’s acting inspector general, Charles J. Sheehan, told the agency’s administrator, Andrew Wheeler, that his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, was in “open defiance” of two separate inquiries, an audit and an investigation, though details of the second matter remain unknown.

“To countenance open defiance even in one instance — much less two, both by a senior public official setting precedent for himself and all agency staff — is ruinous,” Mr. Sheehan wrote.

An E.P.A. spokesman said Wednesday that Mr. Wheeler had directed Mr. Jackson to sit down with Mr. Sheehan’s office for an interview.

“Today, the Administrator spoke with Acting Inspector General Chuck Sheehan to inform him that Mr. Jackson has agreed to sit for an interview with the O.I.G.’s office,” the spokesman, Michael Abboud, said. “E.P.A. believes that this accommodation resolves the issues identified” in Mr. Sheehan’s letter.

The audit of Mr. Jackson followed a New York Times report on emails that revealed efforts to pressure a scientist, Deborah Swackhamer, into altering her planned testimony before the House Science Committee in order to play down the dismissal of expert advisers from the agency. At the time, Dr. Swackhamer said she had “felt bullied.”

The topic of the second matter is not known. However, E.P.A. officials said that they believed it is linked to Mr. Jackson’s involvement in the 2018 firing of Madeline Morris, who worked as a scheduler for Scott Pruitt, the former head of the E.P.A. A New York Times article revealed that Mr. Jackson, along with another senior staff member, put pressure on Ms. Morris to retroactively delete some potentially problematic meetings from Mr. Pruitt’s calendar, which would have been a federal crime, and then fired her when she refused to do so.

In his letter, Mr. Sheehan wrote, “Mr. Jackson’s cooperation has been patiently sought multiple times over protracted periods.”

Mr. Sheehan also cited Mr. Jackson’s response when asked how he had received an advance copy of Dr. Swackhamer’s testimony: “Will I say where I got it from? No.” Asked again how he became aware of the testimony, Mr. Jackson responded, “I am not going to involve others or point fingers.”

“Welcome to Washington,” he added.

The chief of staff also refused to schedule an interview until he was told the subject of the inquiry. “Until I receive it and have the opportunity to prepare I’m not meeting with you or your staff,” he wrote.

Mr. Jackson has been a powerful player at the E.P.A. since the start of the Trump administration. He first served as powerful lieutenant to Mr. Pruitt, working to roll back environmental regulations even as Mr. Pruitt became ensnared in ethics scandals that eventually led to his resignation. He has also worked as a senior aide to Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, who has denied the established science of human-caused climate change.

The acting inspector general sent a letter outlining his concerns with Mr. Jackson to the congressional committees that oversee the E.P.A., which have the power to issue subpoenas.