Congressional auditors say the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broke the law on multiple occasions with "covert propaganda" in support of a controversial regulation that gives the agency power over smaller streams of water.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said a pair of social media campaigns by the EPA in support of its “waters of the United States” rule broke laws that prohibit federal agencies from promoting or lobbying for their own actions.
It also said the EPA broke the law with a blog post that linked to two environmental groups' pages urging readers to contact members of Congress to oppose legislation.
“We conclude that EPA’s use of Thunderclap constituted covert propaganda, in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibition,” GAO wrote.
“We also conclude that EPA hyperlinks to the [Natural Resources Defense Council] and Surfrider Foundation webpages provided in the EPA blog post constitute grassroots lobbying, in violation of the grassroots lobbying prohibition.”
The GAO said the EPA also violated the law that prohibits spending government resources that have not been appropriated.
Investigators conceded that they could not confirm that websites to which the EPA linked had the offending content at the time the blog post was first published. The agency has since deleted the post.
The EPA defended its practices, saying in a statement that it disagreed with the watchdog's findings.
“We maintain that using social media to educate the public about our work is an integral part of our mission,” EPA spokeswoman Monica Lee said in the statement.
“We have an obligation to inform all stakeholders about environmental issues and encourage participation in the rulemaking process. We use social media tools just like all organizations to stay connected and inform people across the country about our activities.”
Specifically, the agency said it never encouraged the public to contact Congress, and that its public comment period for the water rule was only meant to seek new information and perspectives on the proposal from citizens.
The EPA wrote to GAO investigators that its promotion campaigns were only "an appropriately far-reaching effort to educate the American public about an important part of EPA’s mission: protecting clean water."
The Monday ruling from the GAO was publicized by Sen. James InhofeJames Inhofe House passes water bill with Flint aid, drought relief Fight over water bill heats up in Senate Trump taps Oklahoma attorney general to lead EPA MORE (R-Okla.), who received the private decision.
Inhofe said the decision is vindication for those who cried foul at the Obama administration’s aggressive wide-ranging efforts to build support for the water rule.
“GAO’s finding confirms what I have long suspected, that EPA will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda,” Inhofe said in a statement.
“EPA’s illegal attempts to manufacture public support for its waters of the United States rule and sway congressional opinion regarding legislation to address that rule have undermined the integrity of the rulemaking process and demonstrated how baseless this unprecedented expansion of EPA regulatory authority really is.”
Inhofe sought the investigation following a May New York Times piece about the EPA’s promotion of the rule.
The EPA made the regulation final earlier this year in an effort to assert federal power over small waterways such as headwaters, wetlands and streams for the purposes of the Clean Water Act.
The agency cannot currently enforce the rule, since a federal court has put it on hold pending litigation against it by 31 states and numerous business interests.
In addition, the Senate has passed a measure to overturn the rule, which the White House said President Obama would veto.
Agriculture and industry groups have gone on the warpath against the rule, calling it a massive power grab by the federal government.
Republicans could seek to thwart funding for the rule in the year-end government funding package that could be released late Monday evening.
- This story was updated at 4:07 p.m.