Watchdog looking into legality of EPA tweet poking Dems

Watchdog looking into legality of EPA tweet poking Dems
© Greg Nash

An independent government watchdog has agreed to a Democratic senator's request to look into claims that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violated the law through a politically charged tweet in April, a spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is reviewing an April 13 tweet from the official EPA account that praised the Senate's confirmation of Andrew Wheeler as the agency's deputy administrator while adding, in part, "The Democrats couldn’t block the confirmation."

Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallSenate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Senate Dems want DOJ review of Giuliani's work for foreign entities MORE (D-N.M.) had sent a letter to the GAO in May asking for the review. Udall maintains that the tweet violates the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, which prohibits agencies from using funds for “publicity or propaganda purposes."

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“In my view, this tweet does not advance an information function of the EPA and is purely partisan in nature,” Udall said in a statement Tuesday. “The appropriations law prohibiting federal agencies from spending on publicity and propaganda was enacted for a reason — to ensure that taxpayer dollars only support official activities, not political speech."

During a Senate hearing in mid-May, Udall questioned 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 about the tweet, asking if he was aware that the law prohibits propaganda.

Pruitt said that he was not aware of the tweet and agreed it shouldn't have been sent.

"Well, I was unaware of the tweet and that shouldn’t have occurred. … There should have been no mocking that took place," Pruitt said.

Asked if he would apologize, Pruitt said, "The agency should not have done that."

The Senate confirmed Wheeler as Pruitt's deputy at the EPA in April by a vote of 53-45. All the Republicans voted for Wheeler, along with Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinCook Political Report moves Texas Senate race to ‘toss-up’ The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampGOP Senate candidate: Allegations against Kavanaugh 'absurd' The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world MORE (Ind.), Democrats all running for reelection this year in states President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE won in 2016.

Previously John O’Grady, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents EPA employees, sent a complaint to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) arguing that the EPA's April tweet was in violation of the Hatch Act, which bans federal employees from engaging in political activity while on the job.

O’Grady charged that Pruitt or someone acting on his behalf directed the tweet.

“It’s not our job to basically tell them whether or not it was a violation of the law. It appeared to be a violation of the law, so we want the Office of Special Counsel to give us a clear indication,” O’Grady told Federal News Radio at the time.

However, the OSC ruled on May 23 that the tweet was not in violation of the Hatch Act and that Pruitt was not at fault.

"The tweet at issue does not give rise to a Hatch Act violation because, without more, it was not aimed at the electoral success or defeat of a political party or candidate for partisan political office," wrote Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act Unit, in a letter to Pruitt obtained by The Hill. "Accordingly, OSC has concluded that no EPA employee violated the Hatch Act."

Galindo-Marrone added that officials learned that Pruitt did not compose the tweet nor personally directed anyone at the agency to write it.