A Whistleblower Looses Toxic Emissions at His E.P.A. Bosses—and Makes Them Fume

updated 08/23/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/23/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The government agents plainly thought they had their man. In Washington, they claimed, they found him making a false statement on a federal document. In Pennsylvania, their hidden cameras photographed him entering a motel room with a young brunette. Clandestinely, they recorded a meeting in which he alerted people to loopholes they could use to outmaneuver a federal agency.

It might have been an episode of Today's FBI, except for a few details. The agents were not G-men but investigators for the Environmental Protection Agency, and the quarry was not some fugitive felon but Hugh Kaufman, 39, a career civil servant and assistant to the head of EPA's Hazardous Site Control Division. The document he allegedly falsified was a vacation request form, the woman at the motel turned out to be his wife, and—perhaps most significant—the agency he counseled a citizens' group to outsmart was his own. When news leaks made the surveillance operation public in June, it became clear that Kaufman was a victim of a simple fact of Washington life: When bureaucrats are stung by a gadfly, their first instinct is to swat the pest. "It's immoral," charges Kaufman. "What they're doing is telegraphing to every civil servant that if you don't keep your mouth shut you're going to face secret police kinds of harassment."

EPA officials now insist that they began surveillance—which reportedly included bugging Kaufman's office phone, trailing him on a nonagency trip and recording a public statement—because of "potentially criminal violations." The $47,000-a-year engineer admits that he filed for two days off as sick leave when they should have been counted as vacation but claims that he simply checked the wrong box on a form by mistake. His real offense, he says, has been his outspoken criticism of EPA Administrator Ann Gorsuch, whom he once characterized as "a knee-jerk extremist whose track has not been one of character but intellectual cunning." As soon as the investigation became known, the EPA hurriedly announced that it had been dropped—but in terms that were far from flattering to Kaufman. "Hugh Kaufman is a publicity hound of the highest order," declared press officer Byron Nelson. "He gets his name in the paper because of his unique position to criticize the agency from within. But I can assure you he's 99 percent fluff."

Kaufman's flair for colorful rhetoric has made the 11-year EPA veteran a longstanding source of dangerous emissions for the agency. In testifying before a congressional committee in March, shortly before the surveillance reportedly began, Kaufman accused the government of failing to protect Americans from toxic waste dumps. "If I were a Russian spy and wanted to poison the American people," he said, "I couldn't plan a better way of doing it than the way the government is handling the hazardous waste issue." Miles Cunningham, a staff aide to the House Commerce, Transportation and Tourism Subcommittee, believes this testimony may have sparked the probe: "It's an attempt to discredit him as a witness in future congressional hearings."

Entrenched in his cramped office by civil service regulations and seniority, Kaufman has been sounding shrill blasts on his whistle since the mid-'70s, when he concluded that the agency was reacting sluggishly to the menace of 50,000 toxic waste dumps. "Once you talk face to face with people who live near a toxic dump, you're never the same," he explains. "They can't get safe drinking water, can't sell their homes and are total prisoners." During the Carter Administration, Kaufman's penchant for headline-making dissent cost him his job as the EPA's chief toxic waste investigator. Although he is relegated now to an administrative job, he spends his free time lecturing on toxic waste cleanup. "We're on a collision course with wiping out our water supplies in 20 to 30 years," he tells them, "and the Reagan Administration is fiddling. The people in the EPA now are a destruction crew. They're cutting the staff, slashing the budget and tripling the red tape. The result is that nothing gets done." On the other hand, Kaufman does have a high opinion of at least one EPA official: "If an election were held tomorrow, 90 percent of the people in the agency might vote for me as administrator." With that kind of self-confidence, Kaufman is hardly likely to let pressure from the top force him out. "No way," he says. "Let them quit. I'm doing my job. They're not doing theirs."

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