Inside the controversial fight over the appointment of Trump-Biden in the chemical safety board
The Trump-appointed head of the government’s chemical safety board heads to the exits amid high tensions with her colleagues, who were appointed by President Biden.
The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, commonly known as the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), has been fighting for a rule governing the operations of the board that was approved by the outgoing president, Katherine Lemos, appointed by Trump.
Lemos announced his resignation a week ago on Friday, but he won’t actually step down for weeks and the feud with his colleagues is becoming increasingly contentious.
The two sides are fighting over a rule known as Board Order 28. Lemos approved it when he served as the sole board member in April 2021, just a couple of months after President Biden took office.
The two Biden candidates who now sit with her on the board, Steve Owens and Sylvia Johnson, say the rule gives the president too much power. They have voted to get rid of some of his changes, but Lemos is challenging that vote on procedural grounds, his colleagues said.
One of his problems with the order is that it took issues that used to be subject to board approval, such as the agency’s budget and spending over $50,000, and made them the sole responsibility of the president.
“The extent to which the revisions that were made in April 2021 in Board Order 28 gave the president … total authority over everything is unprecedented in the history of board operations,” Owens said in a joint interview. with The Hill along with Johnson.
He also raised the fact that the changes came shortly before they were nominated later that same month, saying, “I think there was an expectation that President Biden would appoint the board members.”
Another particular area of controversy has been the “misconduct” section of the rules governing the board.
The language includes provisions that would allow one board member to report another to authorities, including the FBI, the White House or Congress, for crimes such as unauthorized disclosure of nonpublic information.
Johnson described the order as “punitive.”
“There is a long list of offenses that we could potentially be disciplined for, and that discipline includes, but [is] it’s not limited to being banned from your email, being reported to the FBI, to Congress, to the White House, whatever,” Johnson said.
“It was punitive and it certainly didn’t lend itself to any kind of collegial working environment among board members who are highly professional and quite responsible people,” he added.
CSB spokeswoman Shauna Lawhorne said by email that Lemos did not author the order. She said he was “primarily based” on the work of the board’s general counsel’s office. Lawhorne also said the changes are “closely tailored to our enabling legislation and follow the original intent of Congress.”
Johnson and Owens wanted to make their own changes, they said, and voted to do so, but had a procedural dispute with Lemos over whether his vote was valid.
The fight is still unfolding, even as Lemos tendered his resignation on Friday, about halfway through his appointed five-year term. He is expected to remain on the board for several more weeks.
In a letter of resignation obtained by BloombergLemos cited an “eroded confidence” in the board’s ability to focus on its mission based on its “recent priorities.”
Johnson and Owen said the resignation, at least for them, was abrupt.
“It was a big surprise, certainly for me,” Owens said. “We had no prior knowledge about it and we didn’t really find out about it until we got a call from … a senior adviser to the president on Friday.”
The board is an independent agency tasked with investigating industrial chemical accidents. Board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
In their procedural dispute with Lemos, Owens and Johnson said they used an expedited procedure in which a majority vote could approve their changes to Board Order 28. But since Lemos has insisted on bringing the issue up for a public meeting, Owens said board members have been trying to schedule one of those meetings.
Now that the president is leaving, Owens said, it’s unclear if or when a meeting will take place, though if it doesn’t happen while Lemos is there, the two are expected to disrupt the order after she leaves.
The fight with the two board members is not the only controversy surrounding Lemos, who has been criticized by outside groups for his travel and other expenses.
The organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reported last year that between joining the board in 2020 and May 2021, Lemos spent $33,000 on travel, mostly from his home in California to Washington, according to documents the group received from a Freedom of Information Act request. PEER also reported that it spent nearly $20,000 on office renovations despite the $5,000 limit for government officials.
A source who saw a separate budget document told The Hill this week that for fiscal year 2022, the CSB had budgeted $50,000 for Lemos’ “intercity commute” between his home in San Diego, which the agency recently designated as the official base of Lemos, and Washington.
When asked for more details about the use of this $50,000, including whether it was for travel in general or just between Washington and San Diego and why it was necessary, Lawhorne said, “Travel budgets for Board members follow all Federal Travel Regulations and are accounted for in the normal course of business. This amount is for all trips.”
“Similar budgets are also available to other Board members and are in line with or below historical norms,” he added.
In response to follow-up questions, Lawhorne disputed the $50,000 figure, saying “the amount of $50,000 offered in your question is not supported by our budget presentations or expenditures.”
However, he declined to say how much the agency spent on Lemos’ trip and refused to provide budget documents.
A second source familiar with the situation confirmed that the agency is funding Lemos’ travel to and from San Diego, including airfare and hotels, but said he didn’t know how much was being spent.
Virginia Canter, senior ethics adviser at the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the alleged travel budget “probably raises issues.”
“If it’s just flying back and forth to DC, then maybe it doesn’t make sense. Maybe his destination has to be in DC. Taxpayers should not pay more than necessary for official travel,” she said.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, which also oversees the Chemical Safety Board, announced it would launch an investigation into the agency’s operations.
Specifically, it said it will “review the CSB’s capabilities to effectively manage its programs and operations” and will look in particular at “staffing levels, attrition and leadership.”
Lawhorne said the agency fully supports the investigation.
Amid the controversies, PEER calls for Lemos’ immediate removal in a new letter to President Biden that the group shared with The Hill.
“Allowing Ms. Lemos to remain as CSB chair for another six weeks will only prolong this completely unproductive state of affairs and prevent CSB from moving forward under new leadership.” wrote Tim Whitehouse, CEO of PEER.