Lobbyist whose wife rented to Pruitt sought help from EPA for client

Lobbyist whose wife rented to Pruitt sought help from EPA for client
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The longtime lobbyist whose wife rented a condo to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE reached out the EPA on behalf of a client in early 2018 — despite claiming he hadn’t lobbied the agency in the last two years.

As part of Williams & Jensen’s work for client Smithfield Foods, J. Steven Hart reached out to the EPA in the first three months of this year to discuss “issues relating to support for EPA Chesapeake Bay Programs,” newly filed disclosures show.

However, Hart recently told E&E News that he hadn’t engaged in any advocacy before Pruitt’s agency either last year or in the present one.

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Earlier this month, Pruitt also echoed those claims, saying on Fox News that “Hart has no clients that have business before this agency.”

Disclosures that arrived late Friday evening suggest, however, that Hart did advocate before the EPA in some capacity.

A person close to the firm said Hart had sent an email to the agency on behalf of the company’s philanthropic arm, the Smithfield Foundation, regarding Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.

But Hart, in a statement on Saturday, pushed back against the inclusion of the contacts in the most recent lobbying disclosures for the company.

“I assisted a friend who served on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, and this is inaccurately being tied to Smithfield Foods. I was not paid for this assistance and any suggestion that I lobbied for Smithfield Foods is inaccurate," he said through a spokesman.

The Chesapeake Bay Commission is an intergovernmental body made up of elected officials, state Cabinet members and three "citizen representatives" that advise on legislative efforts related to environmental restoration policies in the Chesapeake Bay area. 

While the Virginia-based Smithfield Foods has been involved with Chesapeake Bay environmental foundations in recent years, the company was hit with a more than $12 million fine in 1997 for illegally dumping waste from pigs on its industrial farm into a waterway leading to the Chesapeake Bay.

Dennis Treacy, a former executive for Smithfield Foods, is listed on the commission's website as a Virginia citizen representative. He currently sits on the board of the company's charitable arm, the Smithfield Foundation, and still maintains a Smithfield email address.

The lobbying disclosure forms were filed hours after Hart, who most recently served as chairman of the firm, stepped down after 35 years at Williams & Jensen.

It has now hired an outside lawyer, Jan Baran at Wiley Rein, to comb through its filings from 2017 and 2018 to make sure they accurately reflect any advocacy the firm took on EPA issues, said a source who asked to speak anonymously to share the internal information.

A spokesman for the firm said in a statement that the lawyer had flagged the 2018 email from Hart to the EPA for Smithfield Foods.

“An independent review of the firm’s lobbying activity in advance of the quarterly filing deadline concluded that Mr. Hart had lobbying contact with the Environmental Protection Agency in the first quarter of 2018,” a spokesman for Williams & Jensen told The Hill in an email. “The firm is filing/has filed the requisite disclosure forms required by law accordingly.”

Smithfield Foods has been a client of Williams & Jensen since 2001, with Hart being listed on those contracts since the beginning. In the first three months of this year, according to the most recent disclosures, Hart lobbied Congress, the White House, Commerce Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of Smithfield Foods on issues such as trade, food safety and the upcoming farm bill reauthorization.

In a statement released on Saturday, Smithfield Foods also disagreed with the information disclosed in the quarterly filings pertaining to lobbying before EPA. 

"Smithfield Foods, Inc. has learned Williams & Jensen has advocated in support of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) programs to help the Chesapeake Bay. The objective, while laudable, was not undertaken at the direction of or on behalf of Smithfield Foods. These activities were conducted at the request of a then former executive and current Smithfield Foundation board member, Dennis Treacy, in his personal capacity. Mr. Treacy is associated with several environmental organizations and is a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission," the statement reads.

Williams & Jensen lobbied for two clients in front of the EPA last year, according to public disclosures: Owens-Illinois, the largest glass bottle manufacturer in the world, and OGE Energy Corp, the parent company of the Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co.

Hart was registered in 2017 to work for Owens-Illinois before the EPA, though he says his inclusion on that form is an error and the firm is working to fix it. Smithfield Foods and OGE Energy Corp. brought issues to the EPA in the first three months of 2018, new forms show. Hart has not lobbied for OGE Energy.

“I do not lobby the EPA. I have had no lobbying contact with the EPA in 2017 or 2018 for the two clients listed or any others,” Hart told E&E News.

Earlier this year, Williams & Jensen was thrust into the spotlight when reports surfaced that Pruitt had rented a Capitol Hill condo co-owned by Hart’s wife, health-care lobbyist Vicki Hart, for some of 2017.

Pruitt paid only $50 a night for the condo when he was in town, and paid only for the nights he slept there. The EPA chief rented from the Harts for about six months, paying a total $6,100 for the space. His daughter also lived there during her stint as a White House intern during the summer.

The arrangement has raised questions about whether the generous rental agreement broke any ethics laws that prohibit lobbyists from giving gifts to public officials.

The relationship between Hart and Pruitt, who both hail from Oklahoma, stretches long beyond Pruitt taking over the helm of the EPA last year.

But the negative attention caused tension among others at the firm who ultimately pressed Hart, who had once led the firm as CEO, to step down, according to the person familiar with the firm.

“We are grateful to Steve for his 35 years of service and we wish him and his family well in all of their future endeavors,” a spokesman for the firm said on Friday.

Hart announced midday on Friday that he was leaving the firm and his biography page was taken down from the website by the early evening.

“Considering the last couple of weeks, I think it is easier on my family and the firm to expedite my departure,” Hart wrote to family and friends Friday.

“As you know, these days I am no more an energy lobbyist than I am an astronaut. But, why let the facts get in the way of a good story,” he said in the email.

Hart, who has been billed an energy lobbyist since the Pruitt story broke last month, represented clients in various sectors, including United Airlines, clothier Brooks Brothers, the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, and HSBC North America.

He once represented Cheniere Energy, which ended its contract with the firm this year.

The law and lobbying firm is one of the highest-earning firms on K Street, taking in more than $16.5 million in lobbying revenues in 2017.

Like most of K Street, 2018 has been a good year for Williams & Jensen. The firm took in more than $4.4 million in lobbying revenue during the first three months of 2018, a 13 percent increase over the same period last year.

— Timothy Cama contributed

This story was updated at 1:10 p.m.