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Dems probing whether EPA officials violated ethics rules

Congressional Democrats are launching a probe into whether Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials scaled back regulations for air pollution to benefit former lobbying clients.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to a number of electric utilities and the lobbying firm Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP asking for documents tied to their work on rolling back the Clean Air Act (CAA), in an effort to determine whether the EPA officials violated ethics rules.

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William Wehrum and David Harlow previously worked as lobbyists for a group of utilities while at Hunton. Wehrum is now assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, and Harlow serves as senior counsel in that division. Both joined the agency during the Trump administration.

“We are concerned that two former employees of your firm — William Wehrum and David Harlow — may have violated federal ethics rules by helping reverse EPA’s position in ongoing litigation,” Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneHouse Democrats criticize Texas's 'shortcomings in preparations' on winter storms House panel to probe conspiracy theories in the news House Democrats urge Amazon to investigate, recall 'defective' products MORE (N.J.) wrote in a letter to Hunton that was also signed by Reps. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoDrug overdose crisis worsens in shadow of COVID-19 pandemic Key House Democrat urges 'economywide' approach to climate change Reversing the Trump administration's numerous harmful efforts to censor science MORE (N.Y.) and Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - J&J A-OK, Tanden in Trouble House Democrats press Facebook on role as a 'breeding ground for polarization' COVID-19 vaccine makers pledge massive supply increase MORE (Colo.).

The agency under President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Georgia secretary of state withholds support for 'reactionary' GOP voting bills MORE has rolled back a number of regulations that had long been targets of the coal industry and coal-reliant utilities.

“The Office of Air and Radiation’s agenda appears remarkably similar to the substantive agenda,” of the utilities, the Democrats wrote. “These allegations have raised substantial questions regarding whether Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Harlow are properly carrying out the CAA as directed by Congress or instead changing agency policies to benefit former clients.”

When asked for comment, an EPA spokesman said Wehrum and Harlow "have both been recused from all particular matters where DTE is a party," referring to DTE Energy, one of the several utilities contacted by House Democrats. The spokesman made no reference to the other companies that received letters.

Wehrum was confirmed by the Senate in 2017 in a 49-47 vote after questions were raised both about his lobbying career and his work at the EPA during the George W. Bush administration, when he held the same position that he does now.

Democrats said federal courts 27 times had overturned regulations Wehrum worked on during his prior EPA stint.

The focus on ethics issues comes in the wake of former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule Restoring the EPA: Lessons from the past MORE's resignation last year following numerous ethics scandals and investigations. His successor, Andrew Wheeler, has faced a number of questions over his past work as a coal lobbyist, and Interior secretary nominee David Bernhardt has faced allegations of continuing to work for past clients.

Updated at 3:42 p.m.