EPA ethics official defends Wheeler over meetings

EPA ethics official defends Wheeler over meetings
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A top Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ethics official is defending acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler over a series of meetings he held with former clients.

Justina Fugh, the No. 2 ethics official for the EPA, said the meetings described in an E&E News story Thursday are well within the bounds of the ethical standards Wheeler is subject to as a senior Trump administration official.

“All four of these meetings so squarely meet the bounds of his articulated recusal statement,” Fugh told The Hill on Friday.

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E&E reported that between Wheeler’s April arrival at the EPA as deputy administrator and his ascension to acting head earlier this month after former chief Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA employees push 'bill of rights' to protect scientific integrity EPA's independent science board questions underpinnings of numerous agency rollbacks Overnight Energy: Rate of new endangered species listings falls | EPA approves use of 'cyanide bombs' to protect livestock | Watchdog says EPA didn't conduct required analyses MORE’s resignation over ethics and spending scandals, Wheeler held meetings with three former lobbying clients and gave a speech at an event led by an executive at another company he used to represent.

Fugh said Darling Ingredients, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and the South Coast Air Quality Management District don’t count as “former clients” under President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Trump expands tariffs on steel and aluminum imports CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group MORE’s ethics pledge for political appointees and nominees because he didn’t work for them within two years before his arrival at the EPA.

“A former client is defined as anybody for whom the appointee provided services — legal service, consulting services, whatever — within the prior two years,” Fugh said.

As for those three companies, “they’re outside the zone of former clients. And so far as we’re concerned, for the purposes of the Trump ethics pledge, they’re not a former client,” she continued, adding that other ethical standards Wheeler is held to also do not prohibit his participation.

None of the three companies were written into Wheeler’s recusal statement because they didn’t meet the Trump ethics pledge definition.

Nonetheless, Wheeler told Bloomberg News that he’d steer clear of clients he’s lobbied for before.

“If I lobbied on something, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to participate,” he said in June.

Wheeler also gave a speech to Business Roundtable's Energy & Environment Committee, which is led by International Paper Co. CEO Mark Sutton.

International Paper is a former client of Wheeler’s within the two-year period. But Fugh said ethics standards carve out an exception for events where a “diversity of interests” is represented, which has been defined as at least five people representing different entities.

“It doesn’t trigger the pledge at all, because he’s permitted to have conversations with a diversity of interests and at least five parties, even when one of his former clients is present,” she said.

Wheeler has been under public scrutiny over ethics since taking the agency’s helm after months and months of ethics and spending scandals by Pruitt.