EPA chief downplays 'covert propaganda'

Lawmakers grilled the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over officials' reportedly illegal use of "covert propaganda" to promote a controversial water rule.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthyRegina (Gina) McCarthyEPA chief upgraded official car to one with bulletproof seat covers Watchdog requests probe into relationship between top EPA aide and man investigating him GOP senators push back on calls to investigate Pruitt MORE denied any wrongdoing before a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the EPA's effect on the rural economy.

“We will pay attention to what the GAO has said,” McCarthy said. “We just disagree that it was a problem,” she added.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the EPA violated federal law by using social media to promote its “waters of the United States” rule.

A GAO report said the EPA used a social media tool, Thunderclap, to recruit supporters of the rule to tweet on its behalf. The agency also posted a blog online that linked environmental groups encouraging action.

McCarthy said the EPA will respond to the GAO.

Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) said the agency's actions damaged the rule-making process.

“I think this is a big deal because goes to the entire integrity of the comment period process,” Gibbs said. “The process is there so stakeholder can put in comment and regulators can do their due diligence to figure out what is the best thing that works in this case.”

McCarthy said the agency is now following guidelines to avoid any future controversy.

“The propaganda issue was we used a system that OMB approves under their guidelines which was a message that said ‘I really care about clean water,’” McCarthy said. “The propaganda they are referring to is not that we lobbied Congress.”

McCarthy said the GAO was worried when other people retweeted the message they were unaware that it was written by the EPA.

Republicans, though, were not satisfied with McCarthy's explanation.

“Whether or not there can be intent proven, the subterfuge and the optics of what took place there are certainly worth considering,” Rep. Rick CrawfordRichard (Rick) CrawfordWhy DOJ must block the Cigna-Express Scripts merger Elvis impersonator named Elvis Presley running for Congress Overnight Tech: Senate Dems want FCC chief recused from Sinclair merger | Tech rallies on Capitol Hill for DACA | Facebook beefs up lobbying ranks MORE (R-Ark.) said.

“I think there's some valuable lessons here in the GAO’s findings, not the least that the administration in your agency is willing to go so far as to breaking a U.S. criminal code to push an agenda.

“In the age of social media and electronic communication, it’s deeply troubling that agencies are willing to use these tools to subvert the concerns of the affected public and drown out opposition to your own views,” Crawford added.

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said the EPA needs to recognize and admit to using taxpayer’s money for illegal lobbying and prevent it from happening again.

McCarthy insisted the EPA is working to respond to the issue.