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DOJ whistleblower: California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority'

DOJ whistleblower: California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority'
© Greg Nash

A Department of Justice (DOJ) decision to investigate a California effort to reduce vehicle emissions was highly criticized on Wednesday by House Democrats, who called it an effort to strong-arm the state and automakers.

An antitrust investigation into the July deals struck between California and four different automakers was kicked off just a day after a tweet from President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE, a DOJ whistleblower testified during a fiery House Judiciary Committee hearing.

John W. Elias, a DOJ career employee who served as acting chief of staff for DOJ’s Antitrust Division for the first half of the Trump administration, said the investigation served as “evidence that our nation's antitrust laws were being misused.”

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Trump’s August tweets and the subsequent investigation came as the administration was developing now-finalized tailpipe emission and mileage standards for vehicles that significantly roll back those developed under the Obama administration.

“Car companies should know that when this administration’s alternative is no longer available, California will squeeze them to a point of business ruin,” Trump tweeted in August.

Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: Four major tech issues facing the Biden administration | Pressure grows to reinstate White House cyber czar | Facebook, Google to extend political ad bans House report says lawmakers could securely cast remote votes amid pandemic Why prevailing wage reform matters for H-1B visas MORE (D-Calif.) called it a "bad faith" investigation. She was one of numerous committee Democrats to cite the investigation as an example of the DOJ inappropriately wielding political influence over industries out of favor with the administration. 

Elias said there was little legal basis for the collusion investigation. Well-established antitrust precedent gives states wide latitude to regulate while “companies are free to collectively lobby the government for regulation.” The investigation fell apart in October when automakers informed DOJ they had individually signed deals with California. 

“Bottom line, it wasn't a legitimate antitrust investigation, was it?” said Rep. Hank JohnsonHenry (Hank) C. JohnsonDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Five takeaways as panel grills tech CEOs Lawmakers, public bid farewell to John Lewis MORE (D-Ga.).

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“The events here constituted an abuse of authority,” Elias responded.

California’s agreements with BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen commit automakers to producing vehicles that could average 50 miles per gallon by 2026, while the Trump plan asks automakers to reach 40 mpg in the same time frame.

“The president is of course free to pursue an anti-environment agenda within the confines of the law. But there's a line between the department prioritizing executive policies and prosecuting companies and individuals solely to retaliate against the president's perceived political enemies,” said Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats MORE (D-R.I.).

Elias said because the investigation was fast-tracked, career staff did not have a chance to do much preliminary research on the case, including reaching out to California.

“Ordinarily decisions of import, here an investigation of a $630 billion dollar automobile market, would take time and care to evaluate, especially when the action would face defenses. In the hurried investigation paperwork, staff acknowledged that it had only partially examined public information," he said.