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Holding the Government Accountable

Scott Pruitt to Testify Today: Here Are POGO’s Most Pressing Questions

Scott Pruitt speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) will question EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in a hearing this morning.

This is Administrator Pruitt’s first appearance before EPW since his confirmation hearings in January 2017. It is also the first opportunity for Senators to look further than Mr. Pruitt’s policy positions and publicly ask about how the Administrator is running the EPA.

From not providing the public sufficient time or information to comment on EPA’s Regulatory Reform Task Force to failing to respond to Senate inquiries with detailed answers, Administrator Pruitt has garnered a reputation for insufficient transparency and for undermining efforts to hold the Agency accountable.

Just yesterday, it came to light that Mr. Pruitt was personally engaged in censoring climate-related information from the EPA website. This indicates a disregard for the public’s access to scientific information and the projected benefits of current regulations, which the public would not be able to easily obtain otherwise. This in turn limits the public’s ability to contribute meaningfully in the rulemaking process.

The Project On Government Oversight is alarmed by the Administrator’s brief record.

Here are the top issue-areas relating to transparency and accountability that POGO hopes Mr. Pruitt’s answers will address:

Transparency in Contracting

On December 7, 2017, the EPA awarded a $120,000 contract to Definers Corp. to perform “news analysis” for the Office of the Administrator. Definers is major Republican public relations firm. This contract should have been open to competition from other companies, but was awarded to Definers without such competition.

The contract was cancelled on December 19, having attracted negative attention from the media and civil society groups for being improperly awarded. The contract was also called out by Members of Congress for having an “appearance of impropriety.” Definers Corp. shares several high-level employees with a PAC that works closely with the Republican Party and performs opposition research. One of these shared employees, Allan Blutstein, has filed at least 40 Freedom of Information Act requests in the last year with EPA, targeting specific EPA employees who expressed criticism of Pruitt’s leadership. In filing these requests, Blutstein has publicly stated that he was taking aim at “resistance fighters” within the government. These ties give the appearance that the contract, which uses taxpayer dollars, was awarded to a company with heavily partisan ties to conduct surveillance of EPA employees.

Today, the EPA still hasn’t justified why it awarded the contract without full and open competition, as they are legally required to do.

Whistleblower Protections for EPA Scientists

Federal employees are generally unable to safely express their disagreement with their agency’s discretionary policy decisions without fear of retaliation for doing so. Within the EPA, this could mean that a scientist who spent years working on a topic during the development of a new EPA policy could be retaliated against for expressing dissent if their work is misused or misunderstood when finalizing the resulting policy.

In 2016, EPA released a report that claimed it was establishing an internal dissent channel for Differing Scientific Opinions. Last March, it followed up with a Scientific Integrity Brochureand promised that employees who express a differing scientific opinion “should not fear nor experience retaliation.” Such a mechanism and its related protections for EPA scientists is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t appear that any progress has been made toward the channel’s actual creation.

Records Release and FOIA

The EPA seems to be withholding documents and information responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests. The EPA’s policy of screening its FOIA responses with “senior management reviews” or “awareness reviews” could be causing undue delay and may waste taxpayer dollars through redundant levels of bureaucracy.

Regulatory Task Force

On February 24, 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13777. This order instructs agencies to create Regulatory Reform Task Forces that will review existing regulations and identify those it deems eligible for modification or repeal. While regulatory oversight can be very helpful in eliminating bureaucratic waste, this Order doesn’t define the various terms or clarify how agencies should apply the criteria, nor does it include any mention of considering the benefits that the targeted regulations bring.

POGO reviewed the requests for comments from 24 agencies resulting from this order. The analysis shows that, unfortunately, the notices are far from illuminating and offer little real opportunity for the public to participate. The EPA, in particular, only allotted 30 days for public comment, which is half the time typically allotted for similarly complex notices.

New “2 for 1” Regulations Requirement

On January 30, 2017, President Trump Issued Executive Order 13771. This order requires agencies to identify two regulations to eliminate for every one significant regulation proposed. This stems from the President’s assertion that a large majority of federal regulations are unnecessary. Yet an executive order doesn’t override the legal requirement to implement existing laws. Congress has the constitutional authority to direct the executive branch to issue many of these regulations, and only Congress can change those orders.

Regulatory Budget

Executive Order 13771 also established a new "regulatory budget" process that focuses only on the costs of implementing regulations and ignores the benefits associated with them. Previously, agencies had evaluated the cost and benefit together and made great efforts to ensure that benefits exceeded costs.

President Trump’s order went on to cap the new regulatory budget for agencies at zero for 2017, meaning that agencies couldn't issue new significant regulations unless they offset the costs to the regulated industries by eliminating or cutting down costs associated with other regulations—even if the public benefits for a new regulation far outweigh the costs.

Enforcement Personnel & Budgeting

According to documents received through FOIA, Pruitt spent more than $800,000 on a 24-hour personal security detail during his first quarter in office, which is nearly double that of his two immediate predecessors. The EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced in 2017 that it was opening an investigation into the matter.

Further, several of the employees on Pruitt’s security detail were investigators pulled from EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, the enforcement arm of the EPA. These employees were reassigned despite the fact that their office was significantly underperforming in its collection of civil penalties compared to the previous three administrations. This reduction in the office’s investigative staff could only hinder its abilities further.

Website Censorship

Since Administrator Pruitt took office, the EPA has dismantled large portions of its website. The EPA sparked public controversy when it removed its climate change website on April 28, 2017, without prior announcement, on April 28, 2017. According to the Paperwork Reduction Act, all agencies must “provide adequate notice when initiating, substantially modifying, or terminating significant information dissemination products,” which we expect should apply to these substantial portions of the EPA’s public-facing website.

It has now come to light via emails obtained through FOIA that Pruitt was personally engaged in removing information from the website. By targeting public access to these documents, Pruitt hampered the public’s ability to provide input during the rulemaking process by depriving them of scientific information that would have informed their comments.

While a large part of the website was publicly archived in the EPA’s January 19 snapshot, a report by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative details the way mistakes by EPA staff during the archiving process resulted in a number of pages being omitted from the archive. So far, the only instance of content being partially returned to the website was when a 380-page site titled “Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments” was replaced by one omitting over 200 climate-related webpages. Since the initial removals, other websites and documents, like the EPA’s Climate Adaptation Plans, have also been made significantly more difficult to access.