By John O’Grady
In 2017, the Trump administration established dangerous new norms in environmental policy. For the coming year, it’s become obvious what’s “in” and what’s “out.”
Regarding EPA, and according to this White House, fossil fuel energy lobbyists are in, and federal scientists and engineers are out.
Permits for offshore oil and gas drilling and mineral extraction at our national monuments are in, and air pollution regulations and water contamination protocols are out. Scott Pruitt’s climate denial and his refusal to release documents supporting his claims are in, while the federal “endangerment finding” that enabled President Obama’s climate actions including the Paris Agreement is out.
In just 10 months, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has devastated EPA by dismantling its science directives to protect public health and the environment. What will result from backing industry interests over defending public health for 300 million Americans? Only time will tell. Here is an inventory of the major investigations of Donald Trump’s EPA expected to come to fruition in 2018.
Administrator Scott Pruitt is one of several Trump cabinet members (including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price), who were caught taking expensive private planes for government business on the public’s dime.
EPA’s Inspector General Arthur Elkins, Jr. is now investigating Pruitt’s travel through Sept. 30, 2017, considering the “frequency, cost, and extent” and whether travel policies were followed to prevent waste, fraud and abuse. Pruitt used private and military jet travel instead of commercial airlines for EPA work on four occasions at a cost of nearly $60,000. He traveled 48 of his first 92 days as administrator — 43 of those days included stops in his home state of Oklahoma.
The second investigation questions Pruitt advocating lobbying. At a meeting with the National Mining Association in April, he exhorted mining association members to tell Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate deal.
Pruitt’s staff also pressed lawmakers and conservative groups to publicly criticize the climate agreement, increasing public pressure on the resident. Afterward, mining association executives voted to support the U.S. withdrawal.
These actions exemplify a potentially larger pattern of illegal activities by Pruitt and EPA staff as these directives from a cabinet member may violate anti-lobbying laws for government officials.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides legal opinions on anti-lobbying questions. But first, the EPA’s inspector general must “develop a comprehensive factual record” for conducting the analysis. He has not forwarded its investigation’s findings to the GAO. Once it does, the GAO will complete its inquiry.
The GAO will also investigate an appearance of impropriety by Pruitt in a video sanctioned by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to promote weakening EPA’s Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule.
In this review to rescind or revise the Clean Water Rule, Pruitt essentially urged the public to comment in favor of repealing the rule. The video advises viewers “tell EPA to kill WOTUS.”
The GAO investigation will examine if Pruitt violated laws on the use of appropriated funds for lobbying, publicity and propaganda purposes and for violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act. Obviously, calling on the public to support a rule’s withdrawal does not appear fair, impartial or open-minded, and undermines the idea that public participation matters.
Yet another investigation will consider possible ethical violations from Pruitt’s insistence that he did not use a personal email address for official EPA business and for speeches he gave to conservative organizations about environmental policy while he was Oklahoma attorney general.
He also ran afoul of professional responsibility in rules for Oklahoma Bar Association lawyers for possibly lying under oath and violation of ethical rules associated with the practice of law. Once the investigation is complete, the bar association’s Professional Responsibility Commission may take disciplinary action against him.
The complaint asserts that Pruitt violated Oklahoma’s rules of professional conduct for attorneys when he testified during his confirmation hearing for EPA administrator that he did not use a personal “me.com” email address for official state business. Oklahoma public-records revealed that he received at least one email message at his “me.com” email address.
The GAO opened one more inquiry into whether EPA circumvented the Trump administration’s own ethics rules when hiring certain agency employees.
To fulfill his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, Trump issued an executive order last January prohibiting executive branch employees from participating “in any particular matter” on which they had lobbied in the two years before their appointment.
In August, Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), asked GAO to investigate a violation of Trump’s lobbying rules. The senators alleged that EPA bypassed that order by hiring certain political appointees under a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act that authorizes the EPA to hire up to 30 people “without regard to civil service laws.”
The senators’ joint statement said, “The whole point of ethics laws is to give the American people confidence that the work of their government is being conducted fairly, honestly, and free from special interest sway. But when an agency can just ignore those rules — and congressional oversight — the result often leads to corruption and scandal.”
EPA’s inspector general has agreed to review whether Pruitt misused appropriated funds when he spent $25,000 installing a secure, soundproof communications booth in his office. According to a government contracting database, Pruitt also paid $7,978 more to remove closed-circuit television equipment to accommodate the booth in an area off his third-floor office. Pruitt has come under fire for building the booth when a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility that guards against electronic surveillance and suppresses data leakage of sensitive information is already available to him at EPA headquarters.
On Dec 18, Sen. Carper sent a letter to EPA’s inspector general asking to expand his current audit of Pruitt’s travel a third time to include the administrator’s recent four-day junket to Morocco to increase exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas. It’s suspicious since natural gas exports do not fall within the EPA’s mission. Flying first class, the trip cost taxpayers $40,000.
Given the scope and seriousness of the allegations, we think the inspector general will likely grant this request. Carper added, “I presume Mr. Pruitt is aware his agency’s inspector general is conducting an investigation into his questionable travel, which makes his decision to take this trip an odd choice at best.”
So, inspector general investigations are in, while Pruitt has been at EPA’s helm for only 10 months. And, they are expected to provide lots of drama in 2018.
John O’Grady is President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National Council of EPA Locals #238 representing over 8,000 bargaining unit employees at the U.S. EPA nationwide.