Energy & Environment

Oversight finds EPA political appointees slow-walked ethics obligations

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A House Oversight and Reform Committee review found the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) let political appointees take months to sign required ethics pledges and compile recusal lists, allowing leaders to work on issues where they had substantial conflicts of interest, the panel argued.

An executive order signed during President Trump’s second week in office requires federal employees to avoid working with former clients for their first two years. 

“These documents indicate that EPA allowed senior agency officials to avoid or delay completing required ethics forms and that EPA was missing forms entirely for some officials,” committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and subcommittee Chairman Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to the agency. 

“The Committee identified multiple instances in which EPA officials failed to complete required ethics documents or sign ethics pledges required by Executive Order 13770.  EPA also allowed officials to delay the finalization of critical ethics agreements for significant periods of time after joining the agency.”

The review found that at least five employees did not have signed ethics pledges as required by the executive order. Another eight took an average of 49 days to sign their ethics pledges.

It also found significant delays from appointees in preparing recusal statements, which require them to list off former clients they must avoid to skirt any conflicts of interest. 

The letter highlights lapses by one EPA employee in particular, Bill Wehrum, the former assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, who was dogged by ethics complaints during his tenure in the office before resigning in June. 

Calling it an “egregious case,” the analysis found Wehrum took 300 days to finalize his recusal statement, in the interim leading on a number of air regulations beneficial to former clients from his days as a coal, oil and gas lobbyist.

That includes an effort to change tailpipe emission and fuel economy standards for vehicles.

Reached for comment, the EPA argued its political appointees have been following ethics guidelines.

“All EPA appointees and advisory board members take their ethics obligations seriously and endeavor to comply with ethics laws and guidelines, and the requirements under the Trump ethics pledge, to say otherwise is just flat out false. EPA has provided multiple responses to the Committee on this topic and the Committee has not once raised a single issue with EPA during our ongoing productions of responsive documents. It is strange that the Committee would wait months to raise this issue in the press and not during those discussions,” an agency spokesperson said by email.  

But other reviews of the EPA’s ethics practices likewise found the agency was not properly meeting obligations.

A 2017 Office of Government Ethics report found multiple lapses in EPA ethics practices.  

Another July report from the Government Accountability Office found the EPA skirted rules when appointing industry leaders to science boards, failing to ensure all those appointees met ethics requirements. 

“EPA also did not consistently ensure that members appointed as special government employees (SGE) — who are expected to provide their best judgment free from conflicts of interest and are required by federal regulations to disclose their financial interests — met federal ethics requirements,” the report said, adding that there should have been more periodic reviews of its ethics programs. 

Tags Carolyn Maloney Donald Trump Environmental Protection Agency Ethics Harley Rouda

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