Watchdog probing more ethics investigations into EPA's former air chief: report

Watchdog probing more ethics investigations into EPA's former air chief: report

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) internal watchdog will continue to investigate the agency’s former air chief for ethics violations tied to his prior lobbying clients, The Washington Post reported Monday.

The investigation comes after Sens. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax MORE (D-R.I.) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperEPA ordered to set stronger smog standards America is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction FARA should apply to Confucius Institutes MORE (D-Del.) sent a letter to EPA’s Office of the Inspector General with a lengthy report following their own investigation of Bill Wehrum, who stepped down as head of the Office of Air and Radiation in June. 

The two senators urged the inspector general in a letter sent Sunday to investigate Wehrum regardless of his departure from the agency.

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“These are institutional concerns that are capable of repetition in the future, yet will evade your review should you abdicate your responsibility to conduct and complete an evidence-based investigation,” the letter said. “Moreover, the ethical failings and absence of accountability that pervade the Trump Administration should not be aided by an implicit message that one can avoid investigation if one simply resigns before the investigation is complete.”

A spokeswoman for the inspector general said they are reviewing both the letter and the report, but would not confirm the existence of any investigations. 

Wehrum’s conduct at the EPA spurred at least two other investigations from the inspector general, according to the Post. Those investigations primarily stem from Wehrum’s previous work as a lobbyist for Hunton Andrews Kurth and an entity called the Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG), which was comprised of several energy companies.

The EPA has repeatedly said that Wehrum has recused himself from all matters where DTE Energy is a party, though the allegations against Wehrum involve a number of other utilities.

Wehrum was one of the architects of the Trump administration's new rule for power plants that rolls back Obama-era requirements.

Whitehouse and Carper detail a number of ethics issues they say show “Hunton-represented industry groups are getting the policy results they seeking” at the EPA.

That lobbying firm represented a number of clients who would go on to organize through various coalitions specific to industries, including utilities, automakers and other groups like petroleum and paper manufacturers. 

It is the UARG, however, that has gotten the most attention. Though Wehrum recused himself from dealing with some of its members, the majority of the utilities were not part of his recusal.

Whitehouse and Carper said the UARG had a list of 17 rollbacks they wanted under the Trump administration, eight of which were acted on in some way by EPA. 

That includes the new power plant rules as well as standards on mercury, weakening rules for haze in national parks, and creating other loopholes for more emissions from power plants. 

Whitehouse and Carper said another group with Hunton ties, the Air Permitting Forum, which includes many automakers, also benefited heavily with Wehrum at the helm.

The EPA is still preparing to finalize rules that would freeze the fuel economy standards set by the Obama administration — a policy where Wehrum was again heavily involved. 

Democrats have been heavily opposed to the fuel economy standards proposed by the EPA. 

“What exactly are you hoping to accomplish?” Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoLawmakers criticize EPA draft rule for curbing rights to challenge pollution permits House Democrats push automakers to rebuff Trump, join California's fuel efficiency deal Overnight Energy: Democrats seek help in appealing to conservatives on climate | Whistleblowers say Interior sidelined scientists | Automakers strike fuel efficiency deal with California in rebuff to Trump MORE (D-N.Y.) asked administration officials as they appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in June, arguing such a rollback could only benefit the oil industry. 

Automakers have since balked at the plan, but the oil industry has not. The American Petroleum Institute was another former client Wehrum recused himself from dealing with. 

The two senators say Wehrum violated ethics rules by failing to recuse himself from dealing with some former clients and taking a long list of meeting with companies he used to represent. 

These various industries “no longer need to pay for Hunton lawyers to effectuate their goals, because those very same lawyers are now representing their interests at the highest levels within EPA, at the taxpayers’ expense,” the report said of Wehrum.

The EPA disputed several parts of the senators report, saying it was Wehrum's job to meet with interested stakeholders, 

"The Senate EPW Minority’s report and letter to EPA’s Office of Inspector General is a replay of old allegations that have repeatedly been answered by the Agency and Mr. Wehrum," said Michael Abboud, and EPA spokesman. "This Administration will continue to focus on improving upon the environmental successes we have already seen in the first two and half years."

 

—Updated at 7:20 p.m.