Ex-federal safety chair billed taxpayers for $50,000 in personal air travel and thousands more in office furniture, U.S. watchdog says

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The former head of the US safety agency that investigates major industrial accidents improperly charged the government for tens of thousands of dollars in travel and office-furnishing expenses, a federal watchdog said in a report made public Thursday. 

Katherine Lemos, who served as chair of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board from 2020 until July of last year, charged the government nearly $50,000 in airfare and other costs to travel from her residence in San Diego to the safety board’s headquarters in Washington, DC, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General concluded. Lemos also billed the government for a trip to Norfolk to attend the embarkation of an aircraft carrier, the report said, adding the expenses were in violation of federal travel regulations.

In addition, Lemos, who was nominated to head the board by then President Donald Trump, spent more than $22,000 to redecorate her office in the safety board’s Washington headquarters — more than four times the $5,000 limit — according to the inspector general. Among the purchases: $4,340 for red “chili pepper” leather upholstery for two lounge chairs with matching foot rests. The report added documentation for one of the purchase orders, noting that it “appears to have been designed to obscure the fact” the furniture was intended for Lemos’ office. 

In response to a request for comment, Lemos provided a June 15 letter from her attorney to the inspector general that said the agency ignored exculpatory evidence and “refuses to credit Dr. Lemos’ explanations.” 

The inspector general’s report said Lemos, through her counsel, disagreed with the report’s conclusions and “asserted that she relied on the advice of CSB staff regarding the expense reimbursements at issue.”

The board, which has investigated incidents ranging from BP Plc’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blowout to a chemical spill that tainted drinking water for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians, was proposed for elimination by Trump who argued the group’s focus on regulation had “frustrated both regulators and industry.”

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