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 UdallHouse passes bill to crack down on toxic 'forever chemicals' Overnight Energy: Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' | Republicans form conservation caucus | Pressure mounts against EPA's new FOIA rule Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' 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 PruittOvernight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade Democrats, scientists slam Trump administration actions on scientific boards Overnight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits 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) ManchinTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand Kentucky Democrat says primary challenge to McGrath 'might be helpful' McConnell's Democratic challenger McGrath backtracks on Kavanaugh comments MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand McConnell's Democratic challenger McGrath backtracks on Kavanaugh comments McConnell's Democratic challenger says she likely would have voted for Kavanaugh MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries McConnell's Democratic challenger McGrath backtracks on Kavanaugh comments MORE (Ind.), Democrats all running for reelection this year in states President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist 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.