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 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 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 CummingsGraham to renew call for second special counsel Hillicon Valley: Sanders finds perfect target in Amazon | Cyberattacks are new fear 17 years after 9/11 | Firm outs alleged British Airways hackers | Trump to target election interference with sanctions | Apple creating portal for police data requests House Dems blast GOP for FBI, DOJ 'conspiracy theories' aimed to protect Trump MORE (Md.), top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, put in a letter to committee Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyGowdy requests FEMA administrator’s travel records amid allegations Nunes: Russia probe documents should be released before election Gowdy: House Intel panel should release all transcripts from Russia probe 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.