Top Dem: EPA slowed ‘politically charged’ FOIA requests

Top Dem: EPA slowed ‘politically charged’ FOIA requests
© Greg Nash

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials have put some “politically charged” public information requests through a more complex review process, according to a top House Democrat.

Ryan Jackson, chief of staff to both former EPA head Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: EPA delays board's review of 'secret science' rules | Keystone pipeline spill affecting more land than thought | Dems seek probe into Forest Service grants tied to Alaska logging EPA delays advisers' review of 'secret science' rules What has EPA been hiding about formaldehyde? MORE and current acting head Andrew Wheeler, told congressional investigators in an interview last month that “politically charged” or “complex” requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) would get an extra layer of review before being fulfilled, likely delaying the documents.

Jackson said a wide-ranging request from the Sierra Club was one such request that got more attention.

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“The request was — I can’t remember the original request, but the request was we would like to get all of the emails sent by, or maybe received by, but definitely sent by this group of people since they began working at EPA. So, that’s pretty much a fishing expedition,” Jackson said, according to snippets that Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsStopgap government funding measure includes census money, military pay raise Maya Rockeymoore Cummings reports surgery was a success, will return to campaign trail The Hill's Morning Report — Public impeachment drama resumes today MORE (Md.), top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, put in a letter to committee Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Conway spars with Wallace on whether White House will cooperate with impeachment inquiry after formal vote Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' MORE (S-S.C.), seeking a subpoena for EPA.

Jackson said the green group’s request got more scrutiny because it wasn’t a "proper" FOIA request.

“There was no reason for it. There was no topic. It was just a fishing expedition,” he said of the request. “And so when I say it’s politically charged, there’s no real FOIA, you know, Freedom of Information Act reason for it, it is just simply submitted to us to see what we will produce.”

Jackson also said some requests were reviewed by the subjects themselves before they were released, and that some releases were delayed so they would coincide with similar releases.

The new information adds to previous accusations from Democrats and others that the EPA has sought to slow walk or otherwise block requests for agency documents under FOIA. Democrats say that Trump administration officials are trying to hide their activities.

The Sierra Club’s wide-ranging request has brought about some of the major allegations that led to Pruitt’s resignation, including that he had aides carry out personal tasks for him like trying to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise.

In his interview with investigators, Jackson also acknowledged that he helped expedite a FOIA request by the National Pork Producers Council, by getting an official with the group a meeting with an EPA official who could help.

Jackson denied that he helped the group because a friend works there or because it was from the pork group.

“I mean if somebody contacts me, I am assuming it’s because they have exhausted as many things as they can in order to get whatever remedy that they are looking for. Maybe not, but I’m assuming so,” he said.

Jackson's interview was part of an investigation the Oversight and Government Reform Committee is conducting into many of the ethics and spending allegations against Pruitt.

In response to the letter, the EPA defended its FOIA practices, noting that requests involving the administrator’s office have increased fourfold from the previous administration.

“Congressional Democrats are selectively releasing parts of the transcript through the media producing an incomplete and inaccurate narrative. EPA has responded to a record number of FOIA requests and will continue to do so,” an EPA spokesman said.