Two Republican senators are asking the Justice Department to investigate what federal auditors have called a “covert propaganda” campaign executed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said the agency should investigate whether officials “knowingly and willfully violated” federal law as part of its publicity campaign over the Clean Water Rule last year.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in December that a pair of EPA social media campaigns supporting its “waters of the United States” rule broke laws prohibiting federal agencies from promoting or lobbying for their own actions.
The GAO also said the agency shouldn’t have used a social media tool to recruit Twitter users to tweet about the rule. It said the agency broke the law by linking to environmental groups’ web pages that asked readers to contact Congress on the matter.
The EPA has defended its work publicizing the water rule, which is now the subject of lawsuits and a Congressional Review Act resolution that senators failed to advance over a presidential veto on Thursday.
In a blog post after the GAO report came out, an EPA spokeswoman said the agency's work publicizing the campaign was above-board.
“Our agency is continually learning and refining our approaches, both to make our communications as effective as possible, and to ensure that we’re continuing to follow the laws governing our means of communicating our important activities to the American public,” wrote Liz Purchia, the director of the EPA’s Office of Public Affairs.
“We’re always seeking the clearest and best routes to engage Americans in our mission and inform them about the taxpayer-funded work that, each day, protects the air they breathe, the water they drink and the environment that we all share.”
Republicans, though, have disputed the campaign’s legality.
“Something is tremendously wrong when a federal agency thinks it can break the law and illegally spend taxpayer dollars," Inhofe, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said Thursday. "But that is the situation we have right now with EPA and their efforts to fool hardworking Americans about their Waters of the United States rule.”