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 UdallHillicon Valley: House panel takes on election security | DOJ watchdog eyes employee texts | Senate Dems urge regulators to block T-Mobile, Sprint deal | 'Romance scams' cost victims 3M in 2018 Dems urge regulators to reject T-Mobile, Sprint merger Dems wary of killing off filibuster 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 PruittCalifornia has sued the Trump administration 46 times. Here are the lawsuits Overnight Energy: Justices take up major case on water rules | Dems probe administration's dealings with Saudi Arabia | Greens sue EPA over toxic paint strippers Environmental groups sue EPA in bid to ban toxic paint strippers 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) ManchinGabbard cites ‘concerns’ about ‘vagueness’ of Green New Deal Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (Ind.), Democrats all running for reelection this year in states President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration 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.