Pruitt delaying document releases, top Dem says

Pruitt delaying document releases, top Dem says
© Greg Nash

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Watchdog opens investigation into Interior chief | Judge halts Pruitt truck pollution rule decision | Winners, losers in EPA, Interior spending bill amendments Sanders endures press grilling over Russia Court blocks EPA policy against enforcing truck pollution rule MORE has instituted policies that are delaying or obstructing the release of documents under public records requests, a top congressional Democrat says.

Two Pruitt aides who recently spoke with staff on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee detailed a set of policies Pruitt has instituted to prioritize Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the Obama administration and have political appointees review certain documents before they are released.

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Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsDem lawmaker calls on House to subpoena American translator from Trump-Putin meeting Hillicon Valley: Trump denies Russian meddling at presser with Putin | Republicans join in criticism of Trump | FCC chief rejects Sinclair-Tribune merger | Uber faces probe over gender discrimination | Social media execs headed to Capitol Overnight Energy: Koch backs bill opposing carbon taxes | Lawmakers look to Interior budget to block offshore drilling | EPA defends FOIA process MORE (Md.), that panel’s top Democrat, said in a Monday letter to Pruitt that the prioritization policy violates the EPA’s own regulations and both policies show attempts to avoid transparency, especially as he weathers numerous scandals and more than a dozen federal investigations into them.

“Combined with your refusal to produce documents requested by Congress, your actions in delaying records under FOIA raise concerns about a fundamental lack of transparency at EPA,” Cummings wrote.

“Your actions injecting politics into the FOIA process mark a stark departure from previous practice,” he continued.

“Your actions are particularly troubling in light of multiple reports that you have retaliated against EPA staff who disclose waste, fraud, and abuse.”

EPA spokeswoman Kelsi Daniels said the agency would respond to Cummings through the proper channels, and defended EPA's handling of FOIA requests.

"Since the beginning of this administration, EPA has seen a dramatic increase in FOIA requests as compared to the last administration, including a nearly 200% increase in the administrator’s office alone, and the agency is working to release them in a timely manner," she said. "When Administrator Pruitt arrived at EPA he inherited a backlog of FOIA requests, some dating back to 2008, and over the last year and a half, EPA has worked tirelessly to clear this backlog."

Both aides who spoke to investigators, Millan Hupp and Sarah Greenwalt, said last week they would resign. Congressional staffers are interviewing them as part of a wide-ranging investigations into ethics and spending scandals by Pruitt, including that they got substantial raises after the White House refused to allow the raises.

Hupp and Greenwalt told staffers that Pruitt instructed EPA employees to use a “first in, first out” FOIA policy, in which no Trump administration requests would be considered until Obama administration ones are completed.

That contradicts both EPA regulations and Justice Department guidelines, which state that relatively simple requests should be put on a faster track.

Greenwalt, Pruitt’s senior counsel, told congressional investigators that she disagreed with the new policy. She suggested that the EPA “evaluate them as they come in, recognizing that some FOIAs are larger than others and more time-consuming and more complicated than others.”

Cummings also cited internal documents, obtained by outside groups, showing that Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, instructed FOIA staffers to submit all documents involving Pruitt to himself and other aides before release.

Jackson wrote a memo last summer saying he had convened a team to “ensure appropriate consultation with senior officials in the relevant offices through the lifecycle of a request,” including “a pre-production awareness review opportunity for material to be released and ensuring the official authorizing a response is authorized to do so under the applicable agency guidance and delegations,” Cummings wrote.

Greenwalt told investigators that she did some of the reviews herself and identified multiple potential additional redactions.

Political appointees in the Obama administration also sometimes reviewed requests and documents pertaining to the administrator.

But a 2015 inspector general report concluded that those appointees’ involvement in the process was minimal.

The Sierra Club, which has requested and received thousands of documents from EPA during the Trump administration, said Pruitt wants to avoid scrutiny.

"Scott Pruitt will do everything possible to operate in the shadows because every time his veil of secrecy is pulled back we find more reasons he should resign," said Michael Brune, the group's executive director.

"Documents obtained by the Sierra Club's FOIA litigation have revealed even more about Pruitt's unethical and potentially illegal behavior, so its no wonder he'd try and obstruct the process. It’s essential that the EPA be completely transparent and forthright when it’s comes to releasing public information under FOIA."