The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to dramatically scale back a pesticide fine on a California company has raised eyebrows, highlighting the ethical land mines facing an administration filled with former lobbyist and business executives.
The Obama administration hit the company, Syngenta, with a $4.8 million fine in December 2016 for violating pesticide regulations that resulted in the sickening of farm workers in Hawaii.
Once the Trump administration took over, the civil fine was reduced to $150,000, though the EPA also ordered Syngenta to spend a minimum of $400,000 to conduct worker training on how to use pesticides.
“Reducing pesticide exposure for the millions of farmworkers who cultivate our food is a high priority for EPA,” wrote Alexis Strauss, the EPA’s acting regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest and longtime veteran of the agency, in a statement last February. “This settlement will bring to Hawaii and Pacific Island growers much-needed training to protect agricultural workers.”
The company and environmental regulators “agreed to settle this through the alternative dispute resolution process and there was no findings of liability. Syngenta maintains there was no violation of the law in this matter,” a spokesman for the company emailed Mother Jones following the settlement in February.
“Agricultural worker safety is a top priority for Syngenta and safe use training has for many years been an integral part of the way the Company does business worldwide.”
Close observers of the EPA noted that Jeff Sands, who was a top EPA agricultural adviser at the time of the settlement, was previously a lobbyist for Syngenta.
Sands told The Hill he was in no way involved in the decision to reduce the fine, and there is no evidence that he worked on the settlement. The move is also in line with other actions from President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE’s EPA, which has broadly focused on reducing regulatory burdens on industry and easing enforcement actions.
Still, ethics experts said Sands’s connection to Syngenta illustrates the difficulties that arise from having so many former lobbyists serving in key positions.
“I think the optics are not particularly great, as become an apparent pattern with this administration,” said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a partner at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock.
“There is a lot of lip service given to following ethical restrictions,” he continued, “but report after report seems to indicate that there is very little commitment to ensuring compliance. I think this feeds into an overall picture that the administration doesn’t take these issues very seriously at all.”
Sands left Syngenta in October to join the EPA and become an agricultural adviser to Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittUnderstanding the barriers between scientists, the public and the truth Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Trump-era EPA board member sues over firing MORE. Government watchdogs decried the appointment, among others, saying the agency had been bringing on lobbyists despite the administration’s promise to “drain the swamp.”
The White House signed off on an ethics waiver that allowed Sands to work on issues he dealt with in the private sector, citing “his deep understanding of agricultural issues forged through his previous service with Congress, a trade association and a company.”
Sands’s résumé makes “him an ideal person to assist the Administrator and his senior leadership team to make EPA and its agricultural programs more efficient and effective,” continued White House counsel Don McGahn.
The ethics waiver Sands received upon joining the EPA allowed him to work on issues that could affect his former industry, the agricultural sector, at large.
However, the waiver request did not ask that he be exempted from rules prohibiting him from being involved with any agency action that would specifically affect a former employer.
“The ethics waiver I received prohibited me from working on direct matters related to Syngenta’s concerns in front of the agency, so I did not take any part in that decision-making process,” Sands told The Hill, adding that he didn’t even know a decision on the settlement had been made.
Four months after Sands joined the EPA, it officially lowered the fine, touting it as the largest ever for violations of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act protection standard.
In March, one month later, Sands left the agency. He’s now an adviser for Rep. Ted YohoTheodore (Ted) Scott YohoOcasio-Cortez: Gosar so weak he 'couldn't open a pickle jar' Rep. Gosar posts anime video showing him striking Biden, Ocasio-Cortez Will America fight for Taiwan? MORE (Fla.), a conservative Republican lawmaker who sits on the House Agriculture Committee.
“My decision to leave EPA centered on a desire to return to Capitol Hill after years of being away and for a change of pace. My work while at EPA revolved around garnering and sharing the perspective of the agricultural community to inform decision-makers at the agency,” he told The Hill.
“My position as Policy Advisor for Congressman Yoho has me focused on many issues that are of concern to his constituents in North Central Florida including but not limited to agriculture.”
Syngenta had been on Pruitt’s radar, with two executives from the company meeting separately with him in May 2017, before Sands joined the agency, about pesticide regulation, according to calendars obtained by the New York Times.
“This fine had nothing to do with Mr. Sands nor Administrator Pruitt’s meeting[s],” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in an emailed statement to The Hill.
Syngenta did not return a request for comment.
While experts such as Paul Achitoff, a lawyer for environmental group Earthjustice, told The Associated Press at the time of the settlement that regulatory agencies typically begin at the highest possible fine and negotiate to a lower amount, rarely is it lowered by such a large amount.
Sands’s new post is a substantial pay cut from his time at the EPA, during which his annual salary was an estimated $161,900, according to a database created by ProPublica, and an even bigger step down from his time at Syngenta.
The financial disclosure forms Sands submitted when he joined the EPA disclosed his salary and bonuses at the company at $261,000.
Yoho’s legislative director — the fourth highest paid person in the office, after the lawmaker’s chief of staff, district director and communications director — earns roughly $78,000 per year, according to congressional tracking website Legistorm. Other advisers make less.
While at Syngenta, Sands lobbied the EPA on pesticides issues, according to lobbying disclosure reports covering six months of the Trump administration and another six months of the Obama administration. He had also reported advocating before Capitol Hill, the White House, the Commerce Department and other executive agencies on issues such as tariffs, the renewable fuel standard and biotechnology issues.
The Obama-era EPA cited two violations of pesticide use laws by Syngenta. In January 2016, a Hawaiian subsidiary of the company allegedly treated a field on a farm with a chlorpyrifos, a powerful pesticide so dangerous that it is not sold to the general public and workers are required to wear protective gear when working around it.
The company did not warn the workers that the field had been recently sprayed, nor did they have “adequate decontamination supplies” at the farm. Ten workers were taken to the hospital, though the company later said none were injured.
The second violation came in January 2017, when workers were again not warned to stay out of a chlorpyrifos-treated field.
Although it is among the most-used pesticides around the world, the Obama administration moved to ban it, citing studies showing it could have adverse effects on brain development in children and may endanger threatened species in the ocean. Pruitt abandoned the regulatory effort.