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 UdallOvernight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback 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 administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year Trump administration to repeal waterway protections The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks 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) ManchinGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan READ: Trump administration memo on background checks NRA says Trump administration memo a 'non-starter' MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states Pence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyLobbying world Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries MORE (Ind.), Democrats all running for reelection this year in states President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report 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.