WASHINGTON (AP) — The former head of a federal agency that investigates chemical accidents improperly spent more than $90,000 during her tenure, including unauthorized trips to and from her California home, remodeling her Washington office and outside media training for herself, according to a new report by a federal watchdog.
The report by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general says Katherine Lemos, the former chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, was not entitled to travel expenses worth nearly $50,000 for at least 18 round trips between the capital and her home in San Diego from April 2020 through March 2022, when she changed her official workplace to San Diego.
Lemos took two additional round trips between San Diego and Washington from March 2022 until her resignation four months later, the report said. Those trips cost more than $5,000, but investigators were unable to determine if they violated federal policy.
Lemos, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, was dogged by controversy throughout her 28-month tenure. For much of that time, she was the only person serving on what is supposed to be a five-member panel.
A September 2022 report by the EPA inspector general said the safety board was hindered by a lack of staffing, leadership disputes and a backlog of investigations that threatened its ability to protect people and the environment.
Leadership disputes, shoddy internal reviews and reporting backlogs "are impeding the board's ability to accomplish its mission," Inspector General Sean O'Donnell said in a statement at the time.
The report came two months after Lemos resigned amid criticism about extravagant spending and internal clashes with other board members. The safety board completed just one investigation in 2020, three in 2021 and three in the first seven months of 2022, the report said at the time. At least 17 investigations were waiting to be closed.
In his newest report, released Thursday, O'Donnell said Lemos was not entitled to payment of travel expenses for stays in Washington or for her travel between the capital and her residence in San Diego.
"Dr. Lemos's decision to reside in San Diego, more than 2,000 miles from her duty station, was her personal choice, and her travel between San Diego and Washington, D.C., was a personal expense,'' the report said. Lemos could not immediately be reached for comment.
She told the inspector general's office that she relied on the advice of board staff regarding expense reimbursements. Staff at the safety board "had difficulty obtaining clear guidance from the Office of Presidential Personnel'' and the Office of Personnel Management on her travel expenses, which mainly came during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many government employees were working from home, she said.
Asked why she continued to travel to and from San Diego even after a formal complaint was filed in May 2021, Lemos replied, "I didn't think I was doing anything wrong," the report said.
Lemos also spent more than $22,000 to renovate her Washington office — despite not using it as her usual work station, the report said. The expenses far exceeded the $5,000 cap for typical renovations that do not require prior notification to Congress. The costs included replacement of furniture that had been purchased for an earlier renovation completed when the board moved to a new office in 2015, the report said,
Lemos told investigators that her furniture purchases were made after consulting with senior staff and her "priority to ensure a safe workplace during the COVID-19 environment for current and incoming board members and staff," the report said.
Lemos also spent nearly $25,000 on outside media training for herself and more than $1,200 to travel to Norfolk, Virginia, for a ceremony celebrating a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. A safety board ethics official said the trip was not related to the agency's official business.
Lemos said she was invited to the Norfolk ceremony in her capacity as safety board chair and that other board employees participated in her media training.
The report cleared Lemos of wrongdoing on a complaint that she improperly hired two senior aides on a noncompetitive basis, including a senior adviser from Northrop Grumman, her former employer.
A spokeswoman for the Chemical Safety Board declined to comment on the allegations against Lemos. But the agency said in a statement that it is close to eliminating the investigative backlog cited in the 2022 inspector general's report. Ten reports have been completed in recent months and two more are expected to be released in early July, the agency said. Five cases that remain from the 17-case backlog cited in the report should be closed by the end of 2023, the agency said.