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Environmental Protection Agency’s Guerrilla Tactics

This paper is dedicated to the application of guerilla tactics by the staff of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 1980s. Here, the ethical issues that were present throughout the period will be described, and the solutions of EPA staff (the guerilla participants) will be evaluated. The case provides important lessons for public administrations, demonstrating that in the presence of power abuse and actions aimed at silencing whistleblowers, guerilla action may be needed to change the situation.

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The Ethical Issue

The case covers the period in EPA history when John Spencer (1981-1983) and Robie Russell (1986-1990) were in charge of EPA’s Region 10. They engaged in some unethical behaviors, abused their power, and prevented employees from whistleblowing (O’Leary, 2014). Consequently, the staff of EPA encountered an ethical predicament: they could not find any in-organization means of fighting against power abuse, but they could engage in a guerilla. Guerilla tactics had their ethical concerns, and O’Leary (2014) pointed out that the decision to try them out was complicated by the conflict between the intent to remain loyal to the organization and the need to address misconduct. While the primary ethical concern of the case study was power abuse and an inefficient whistleblowing system, it focused on the ethics of guerilla management, which will be described below.

Issues of the Political Appointees and Federal Ethics Law Violations

The problems that led to the guerilla started with the appointment of Spencer. O’Leary (2014) reports that he misused public money, neglected some laws (for example, those aimed at regulating the actions of EPA administrators), and engaged in lobbying. Furthermore, he delayed the enforcement of the law, created exemptions that were not warranted, and approved the reveal of confidential information. He also reassigned or fired people who confronted him or informed others of his unethical conduct.

Spencer eventually resigned and went on to work in an organization that was awarded a major EPA contract despite not participating in a bidding process. Ernesta Barnes was appointed next and had a favorable impact on the organization and the morale of its staff, who commented on the fairness of her actions and her accessibility. However, Robie Russell, the next appointee, started to exclude EPA staff from decision-making and tailor those decisions to the interests of particular companies while also punishing the people who spoke against him. He controlled public reports and removed negative comments from them, and, allegedly, misused public money for private needs (traveling).

EPA’s Office of the Inspector General and Office of the U.S. Attorney General reviewed Spencer’s time with EPA, and they acknowledged that evidence of improper actions was found, but they also deemed it insufficient for legal action to take place. Investigations into Russell’s term showed that he, among other things, did use the money for personal needs and prevented EPA from cleaning up a major public health hazard. Unlike Spencer, Russell faced the consequences of his actions.

In summary, Spencer and Russell violated the laws and ethical principles that are upheld by the U.S. government. They were not impartial, did not protect governmental property, misused their position, and failed to disclose unethical conduct, which are violations of relevant ethical codes (Menzel, 2017; U.S. Office of Government Ethics, n.d.; USDA Office of Ethics, 2000). They also prevented whistleblowing, which is an essential mechanism for exposing issues in public administration (Lavena, 2016; Menzel, 2017). Their behavior was ethically and legally problematic, and when faced with ethical dilemmas (for example, personal gain conflicting with public good), they made wrong choices.

Motivation to Use Guerrilla Tactics and Their Ethics

Based on O’Leary’s (2014) report, the following reasons for introducing guerrilla tactics could be cited. First, the choice was connected to the actions of Spencer and Russell. O’Leary (2014) highlights the effects of this conduct on lowering the morale of the staff. However, the lack of legal action against Spencer may have been a more important motivator. O’Leary (2014) suggests that this decision could have undermined the trust of EPA’s staff in the Inspector General’s Office, which limited their resistance options.

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Two primary tactics were employed by EPA staff to undermine ineffective and unethical management despite the danger to their positions: leaking information and filing complaints. Leaking confidential information was initially viewed as problematic since it could harm EPA, and guerrilla participants were reluctant to use it. However, as the internal solution (whistleblowing) appeared to be elusive, the tactic was viewed as a legitimate activity. According to O’Leary (2014), it successfully attracted public attention to unethical conduct within EPA and prompted investigations. The tactic of directing complaints from the staff and environmentalists to various offices, including the Inspector General’s Office and EPA administrators, was in conflict with the value of loyalty for many guerrilla participants (O’Leary, 2014). However, this approach could hardly be viewed as unethical unless the complaints contained false allegations (Lavena, 2016; O’Leary, 2014). Based on the information presented by O’Leary (2014), the EPA staff reported actual problems, which made it legitimate.

Another tactic that, according to O’Leary (2014), was proposed by EPA, consisted of not trying to prevent political appointees from making mistakes. This way, they would be removed for their incompetence, but said competence could result in significant issues. In the absence of an appropriate response to whistleblowing, this tactic could be understandable, but because of its potential outcomes, it would be very questionable. This example shows that guerilla tactics may result in ethical dilemmas. In EPA, however, the focus was on ethical approaches, and they were justified by the situation, which limited other options.

The Consequences for the Organization and Public Policy

While it cannot be said for sure that the guerrilla removed Spencer or Russell, it exposed their misconduct while sending the message to future administrators about the ability of EPA staff to stand up against power abuse. The positive results of the guerilla were acknowledged by EPA management: one of the division directors who had been punished by Russell for standing up to him received a performance bonus after Russell’s resignation (O’Leary, 2014). Thus, the guerrilla had an impact on EPA and promoted the upholding of ethical conduct and policies in the following years.

Alternative Actions and Their Consequences

EPA leaders could have been more decisive in their management of the guerilla. During Spencer’s time with EPA, not many actions were taken, which could be viewed as a missed opportunity. If EPA staff had been better organized and started working against Spencer as actively as they did against Russell, Russell’s misconduct may have been prevented because he would have known about the opposition he would face.

Potential Lessons for Public Administrators: A Conclusion

Aside from illustrating the negative outcomes of power abuse, this case would be of interest to overseeing bodies that are similar to the U.S. Office of the Inspector General. It shows that when faced with hopeless situations, staff members may have to resort to tactics they do not consider ethical. This lesson highlights the importance of enabling whistleblowing and strictly supervising people in positions of power. However, the case contains a hopeful message about the possibility of resisting power abuse in public administration. EPA’s example shows that guerilla tactics can be ethical and may result in significant improvements, which makes them the appropriate choice in case no other solution is available.


Lavena, C. (2016). Whistleblowing: Individual and organizational determinants of the decision to report wrongdoing in the federal government. The American Review of Public Administration, 46(1), 113-136. Web.

Menzel, D. (2017). ethics moments in government. New York, NY: Routledge.

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O’Leary, R. (2014). The ethics of dissent: Managing guerrilla government (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: C.Q. Press.

U.S. Office of Government Ethics. (n.d.). Employee standards of conduct. Web.

USDA Office of Ethics. (2000). A brief wrap on government ethics.

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