WASHINGTON — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman is preparing a series of civil rights initiatives for her agency, including mandatory two-day training for 1,600 supervisors and managers nationwide.
The EPA has contracted with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to conduct the course. Whitman opened her tenure as chief environmental officer for the Bush administration by trying to end an EPA discrimination suit.
Whitman also said that she has set a two-year target for wiping out a backlog of 80 cases of alleged discrimination involving individuals or recipients of federal funds from the EPA.
She made her pledge while testifying at a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the EPA’s budget.
The agency “has had sort of a sordid background on civil rights,” Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Fla., told Whitman, referring to several discrimination lawsuits filed against the agency by employees.
Whitman said she was taking the steps to create a better work environment at her agency. “I’m absolutely committed to it,” she said.
The House Science Committee last year investigated allegations of intolerance at EPA including charges that blacks and disabled people were discriminated against and harassed and that whistle-blowers suffered retaliation for talking to members of Congress.
Two weeks after being sworn in on Jan. 31 as EPA administrator, Whitman sent a memo to employees about her anti-discrimination initiatives and pledged in a second memo on May 3 “to personally monitor our progress in these areas.”
One of Whitman’s first acts at the helm of the EPA was to drop the agency’s legal battle against a black employee who won a $300,000 judgment in a discrimination lawsuit.
The plaintiff in the case, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a senior adviser to the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances, had called Whitman’s decision a healthy start toward better relations between the EPA and its employees.
An April 30 report prepared for EPA by the Covington & Burling law firm says that despite public concern over the Coleman-Adebayo case, EPA’s Office of International Activities where she formerly worked “does not suffer from any systemic diversity or fairness problem or any pattern of discrimination.
The report says the firm reached that conclusion after interviewing about three-quarters of the OIA staff.
It is not the first time Whitman has dealt with racially charged issues.
During her last two years as New Jersey governor, Whitman’s administration was accused of responding slowly to charges of racial profiling by New Jersey State Police officers when they made stops for traffic violations and vehicle searches. Last year the controversy deepened when a 1996 picture was published of Whitman frisking a black youth during a police tour in Camden, N.J.
Whitman’s EPA initiatives come as the House is considering legislation aimed at curbing alleged reprisals against federal employees who complain about discrimination or fraud .
“Discrimination and retaliation against people who complain about it and their supporters is rampant in federal departments and agencies across the nation,” Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, testified Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee.
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