Exclusive: Agency run by Obama holdovers reportedly paid staff despite not having money during shutdown

Tim Pearce, DCNF

Employees at a federal agency run by Obama holdovers received paychecks Friday despite having no federal money appropriated to do so, according to emails obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Staff at the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) received an email Friday morning explaining that they had all received paychecks deposited into their bank accounts by mistake. CSB officials are working with the Interior Business Center (IBC), a federal shared services provider that handles payroll for dozens of agencies, to correct the mistake.

“Folks, if you check your bank account this morning, you are likely to find that you were paid. As I reported to you last night, IBC made an error in processing the payroll for Pay Period 1 and no staff, furloughed or exempt, should have been paid. PLEASE DO NOT ACCESS THE FUNDS. We are working with IBC to determine how to remedy this situation and it is best if you don’t access the funds,” an email, sent staff-wide from a generic agency account, said.

The email was sent by Thomas Zoeller, the CSB’s senior adviser and acting general counsel, according to a source familiar with the payroll error.

During a government shutdown, federal employees fall into one of three categories that determine whether employees are furloughed, working but not receiving pay or working and getting regular paychecks. Officials at the CSB entered a wrong code into the IBC system, classifying the agency’s workers at “exempt,” or working and receiving pay. The CSB was supposed to be categorized as “excepted,” which is working without receiving pay while the federal government is shut down, an official with the Interior Department, which oversees the IBC, told TheDCNF.

The classification error has been corrected and most of the money returned. Four CSB employees still have their errant paychecks, though, because of banking procedures. The CSB and IBC is working with the Treasury Department and the banks to return that money, as well, the Interior official said.

All CSB board members and Zoeller were appointed to their positions under former President Barack Obama. Kristen Kulinowski, Manuel Ehrlich and Rick Engler hold three of the slots on the five-member board. The other two seats are vacant as President Donald Trump has not nominated anyone to fill them.

The CSB has been plagued by scandal and inner turmoil for months. In the results of an agency morale survey uncovered in November, employees were found to have excoriated the agency’s leadership in anonymous comments.

“The level of disregard for employee opinion and morale is obscene at the current condition,” one employee wrote.

Kulinowski and Engler recently passed a “major shift” in policy without formally inviting input from interested parties, in a move that may have violated federal law.

In February, Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold called on Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General Arthur Elkins to investigate Engler for working with unions to pressure Congress for funding for the agency.

The Trump White House has attempted to abolish the CSB twice, cutting it entirely from the White House 2018 and 2019 budget proposals, but Congress has ultimately decided to keep funding the agency.

The CSB did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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