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Investigation

EPA Faces Perfect Storm of Corruption

(Animated illustration: CJ Ostrosky/POGO)

When Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), appears Wednesday before the committee considering his nomination to become administrator, his hearing will be led by a Senator who received thousands of dollars in contributions from corporations with business before the agency. In fact, many of those checks were cut by corporations in response to a fundraiser hosted by Wheeler himself.

In May 2017, Wheeler hosted a fundraiser for Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) on behalf of Faegre Baker Daniels, the lobbying firm where Wheeler worked representing clients including energy companies. Since 2007, Senator Barrasso has sat on two committees with jurisdiction directly affecting such companies: the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Several of the companies that donated to Senator Barrasso around the fundraising event were energy companies with clear interests before both the EPA and Senator Barrasso’s committee.

Senator Barrasso was named chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee in 2017 after Senator James Inhofe (R-OK)—for whom Wheeler formerly served as chief counsel—left the position to take the helm of the Armed Services Committee. The Environment and Public Works Committee has oversight authority over the EPA and will hold the hearing on President Trump’s nomination of Wheeler.

In the two weeks surrounding the May 2017 fundraiser, Senator Barrasso received more than $100,000 from 47 corporate donors, according to a Project On Government Oversight analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) data compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The timing is important because donors to the fundraiser that Wheeler organized most likely would have made their contributions in that window.

Though fundraiser hosts do not have to disclose guest lists, the FEC requires that they forward contributions to recipient campaigns within ten days of the fundraiser. Donations often come in before events, according to Center for Responsive Politics Executive Director Sheila Krumholz, who also noted that her organization generally examines contributions in the weeks immediately before or after a fundraising event to get a better picture of how much money a fundraiser brought in.

Gifts from lobbyists and PACs are usually representative of the client or sponsoring corporation’s interest…especially…when they are giving to a Member of Congress who has jurisdiction over their industry or company by virtue of their Congressional committee or subcommittee assignments.

Center for Responsive Politics Executive Director Sheila Krumholz

Several of the companies that donated to Senator Barrasso around the fundraiser were energy companies with clear interests before both the EPA and the Environment and Public Works Committee, such as the American Petroleum Institute, Alliance Coal, Eastman Chemical Company, and the Nuclear Energy Institute, a former Wheeler client. But several others that do not immediately appear directly linked to the environment also turn out to have business before the EPA, showing how many industries the agency touches. For example:

  • Cummins Inc., a motor vehicle engine company based in Columbus, IN, paid a $2.1 million penalty and recalled more than 400 engines under a 2010 settlement agreement with the EPA for violating the Clean Air Act.
  • The American Dental Association has lobbied for years on a recently finalized EPA rule prohibiting dentists from releasing mercury-tainted waste from dental fixtures into the water system.
  • The National Shooting Sports Foundation has long fought EPA efforts to minimize the amount of lead and other toxins that enter soil and groundwater via shooting ranges.

Most of the companies that donated to Senator Barrasso are regulated by the EPA, which is concerning but not surprising, according to Krumholz.

“Gifts from lobbyists and PACs are usually representative of the client or sponsoring corporation’s interest,” she said. “That is especially true when they are giving to a Member of Congress who has jurisdiction over their industry or company by virtue of their Congressional committee or subcommittee assignments.”

Wheeler worked on energy and environmental issues during his 14 years as an aide to Senator Inhofe, who is known as a climate science denier. Senators Barrasso and Inhofe appear to hold similar views on the environment, according to a Greenwire profile of Senator Barrasso. Wheeler left Capitol Hill in 2009 to work for Faegre Baker Daniels representing clients including Murray Energy, a coal company whose head is a major Trump backer.

The EPA referred questions about the fundraiser to Senator Barrasso’s office, which did not respond to questions by deadline.

The Intercept first reported last year that Wheeler held the fundraiser for Senator Barrasso on May 18, 2017, as well as an earlier one for Senator Inhofe. Both fundraisers took place soon after reports that the White House was considering appointing Wheeler as the EPA’s deputy administrator. President Trump nominated him in October 2017, and the Senate confirmed him in April 2018. Wheeler became acting administrator in July 2018 after his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, resigned in the face of multiple ethics and spending scandals.

Despite President Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp,” his Administration hasn’t heralded any major changes to slow the revolving door between government and special interests—if anything, the Administration has opened the door much wider than the previous Administration for lobbyists to become top political appointees. Meanwhile, lobbyists continue to buy influence with lawmakers through political donations. With Wheeler, both of these long-criticized ways of the swamp come together in one nomination.

PAC Committee Contributions to John A. Barrasso