Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who oversees the overseers?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/01/02

Who oversees the overseers?

Who is responsible for knowing what goes on in one’s own bailiwick?
Where do bucks stop, and what’s the penalty for culpable negligence?

The previous post illustrated this issue in HIV/AIDS research and funding: The principal investigator on a $19 million research project didn’t know what was being done by one of his team who had claimed a discovery of enormous potential significance. The official responsible for supervising grants at the funding agency shrugged his shoulders helplessly, and took no initiative to pull the grant back or to demand refunding of the money spent on fraud. The university took no action to discipline the principal investigator. The fraudster himself merely agreed not to seek federal funds for a period of 3 years, after which he was presumably judged responsible enough to get federal grants again.

One very general context is that white-collar crimes are punished — if at all — much more leniently than others, as is well known and acknowledged without any sign that such crimes, which affect huge numbers of people indirectly as well as directly, are likely to be taken more seriously in the foreseeable future. Help bring about a near-collapse of global financial structures and you are sentenced to retire with a golden parachute.

A slap on the wrist is what happened to researcher Dong-Pyou Han. Now there’s less than 3 years in jail for John Beale, a top official at the Environmental Protection Agency who drew $200,000 a year plus enormous travel expenses for doing absolutely nothing:

“Beale Street Blues; EPA Top Dog’s Astonishing Fraud”

“Climate change expert sentenced to 32 months for fraud, says lying was a ‘rush’”

“John Beale’s EPA: An amazing fraud by an architect of government climate policies”

Beale’s punishment is certainly more appropriate than was the HIV/AIDS researcher’s — “Beale . . . agreed to pay $886,186 in restitution and to forfeit another $507,207. . . . he was [also] sentenced to 32 months in federal prison”.

But what about the people who were Beale’s supervisors?

Well, his immediate supervisor was promoted to head the EPA.

“From 1989 until 2013, Beale was employed in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation (OAR), which develops policies and regulations related to air pollution and climate change. It is the most powerful office within one of Washington’s most powerful agencies . . . . And for much of his time Beale was senior policy adviser. . . . [H]is specific duties included assisting the head of OAR ‘in planning, policy implementation, direction, and control of EPA programs.’
From 2009 until 2013, the head of OAR was Gina McCarthy, who is currently the EPA Administrator. So not only was Beale within view of senior managers as he pulled off his astounding fraud, he was directly managed by the woman who now runs the place. [emphasis added]
At 10:44 a.m. EST on December 3, 2010, Ms. McCarthy wrote to her staff at OAR and reported: ‘I am pleased to let you know that John Beale will be resuming his role as the Immediate Office’s lead for all of OAR’s international work.’ She added: ‘Most of you know John well as he has been a very large presence in much of OAR’s work for over 20 years. In addition to lead roles in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the early implementation of the Act, the development and negotiation of the National Low Emission Vehicle Program, and the 1997 [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] review, John served as OAR’s lead for international work from 1990 thru [sic] 2005. Beginning in 1999, John managed OAR’s work on climate change as well as all other international work.’
Ms. McCarthy further gushed that ‘I am very excited to finally get the opportunity to work closely with him. In addition to the international work John will continue to work on various special projects for me.’
There’s more. In an odd conclusion to that December 2010 staff bulletin, Ms. McCarthy wrote that Beale ‘is supposed to be sitting in 5426B of Ariel Rios North, but good luck finding him. We are keeping him well hidden so he won’t get scooped away from OAR anytime soon.’”

Please note the “I am very excited to finally get the opportunity to work closely with him” — even though he had already been Ms. McCarthy’s “senior policy adviser” for at least a year.

The EPA seems to be attempting a whitewash of its chief administrator: “EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson . . . said the fraud was uncovered by new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy during her time as the head of the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation”. That hardly jibes with McCarthy becoming head of OAR in 2009, praising Beale profusely at the end of 2010, and questioning his lies only two years later: “EPA officials didn’t question Beale’s claim to be a CIA employee until November 2012”.

Bad enough that the EPA seems unable to recognize the faulty science in allegedly human-caused global warming. Its chief administrator seems not to know what goes on even with her own chief advisors.

What does it take for a highly placed administrator or bureaucrat or corporate functionary to be fired?

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