Overnight Energy: Watchdog hits Interior over personnel moves | Dems want to push back vote on Pruitt's No. 2 | Gowdy says EPA isn't complying with travel probe

Overnight Energy: Watchdog hits Interior over personnel moves | Dems want to push back vote on Pruitt's No. 2 | Gowdy says EPA isn't complying with travel probe
© Greg Nash

WATCHDOG SCOLDS INTERIOR ON PERSONNEL RECORDKEEPING: The Interior Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) said Wednesday that the department didn't keep enough records to determine if its reassignments for senior career employees were legal.

Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall said in the report that the Executive Resources Board (ERB), which was tasked with the reassignments of 27 Senior Executive Service (SES) employees, didn't comply with federal standard practices in the process.

That made it so that investigators couldn't "independently determine" whether reassignments, and the reasons for them, followed relevant laws and regulations.

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"We found that the ERB did not document its plan for selecting senior executives for reassignment, nor did it consistently apply the reasons it stated it used to select senior executives for reassignment," the report found.

"We also found that the ERB did not gather the information needed to make informed decisions about the reassignments, nor did it effectively communicate with the SES members or with most managers affected by the reassignments."

As a result, many of the staffers reasonably questioned whether their new posts were political in nature, investigators said.

Interior reassigned 27 of approximately 227 members of the SES between June and October 2017. A number of those employees have questioned whether their reassignments were tied to the nature of their job, a number of which included studying climate science.

Agency leaders are generally free to reassign SES workers, with certain restrictions pertaining to discrimination, political protections and the like. But last year's reassignments were unique due to how many people were moved in one fell swoop.

 

Interior's response: A spokesperson for Interior said officials were happy to see the report's findings proved they had the authority to determine the reassignments, adding that the department "appreciates" the IG's recommendations.

"Obviously, the evaluation confirmed the Department's long-held view that the ERB has the lawful authority to reassign SES Members and has done so here," the spokesperson said.

 

Now we wait for the GAO report: Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellLet's enact a privacy law that advances economic justice There's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down Hillicon Valley: House passes anti-robocall bill | Senators inch forward on privacy legislation | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Illinois families sue TikTok | Senators get classified briefing on ransomware MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she was troubled by the findings. Cantwell sent a request to the GAO at the end of March to investigate the same reassignments at Interior.

"Reassigning 27 civil service employees with scientific or other technical expertise without following the required process is one more screw-up at taxpayer expense by the Department of the Interior. It does not protect our public lands or provide any stewardship," she said in a statement Wednesday. "Reassignment in this case just means it's easier for political operatives at Interior to circumvent the law."

GAO confirmed to The Hill that it will be looking into the investigation but that the work won't likely begin until the fall at the earliest due to a backlog of requests.

 

What it means: Democrats, environmentalists and others have long been critical of Zinke's reassignments and alleged that many of them were motivated by politics or biases.

While Wednesday's report doesn't back up that assertion, the lack of records likely leaves the door open to continued criticism and questions regarding the reassignment process.

 

One thing we noticed: While the records issue was the headline of the report, it also called into question one of Zinke's main justifications for the reassignments: to move resources out of Washington, D.C., and into the communities affected by Interior agencies.

But investigators found that of the 35 proposed moves, four of the workers would have moved from Washington to elsewhere and four would have moved from elsewhere to Washington, "effectively negating the ERB's stated reason to move senior executives to field offices."

Read more.

 

House group wants more Interior diversity: Members of a House task force on environmental justice are sending a letter to Zinke criticizing him for recently reported comments on diversity, urging him to better use diverse resources at the department.

In the letter, the group of 31 Democratic leaders on the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force call the reports that Zinke disparaged the importance of diversity "disturbing."

"These comments are particularly troubling because as the Secretary of the Interior, it is important that you set the tone that diverse voices are critical to the success of DOI," reads the letter. "As a public official, you have the responsibility to ensure that both your agency and the public lands it administers are welcoming and inclusive to all people."

Members highlighted in the letter various programs within Interior and the National Park Service that aim to increase diversity, making the point that diversity is important for national park experiences as well as the bottom line and that such programs should continue to be hailed.

Read more.

 

AND NOW BACK TO THE PRUITT PROGRAMMING:

Dems want to delay Wheeler confirmation vote: Senate Democrats want to delay the confirmation of Andrew Wheeler to the No. 2 spot at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), arguing he should get more scrutiny because of the possibility that he could end up replacing Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight 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 EPA didn't conduct required analyses of truck engine rule: internal watchdog Is Big Oil feeling the heat? MORE.

Democratic members on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee said they fear that that they would be effectively confirming Wheeler as the EPA's chief if President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE decides to fire Pruitt.

"The circumstances regarding Mr. Wheeler have changed since we had our nomination hearing and vote with the cloud over administrator Pruitt," said Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinDemocrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism The Secure Act makes critical reforms to our retirement system — let's pass it this year Lawmakers honor JFK on 56th anniversary of his death MORE (D-Md.) Wednesday. "I think it would be best advised to hold off on this vote to see if we are voting on the acting administrator or the deputy administrator."

Pruitt has been at the center of controversy for weeks over his housing in Washington, raises to certain staffers and his travel and security detail. White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE has reportedly pushed for his ouster.

Trump, however, has offered repeated public support for Pruitt, leading many in Washington to think his position at EPA had stabilized in recent days. Pruitt has also won support from a number of GOP lawmakers as well as conservative voices outside Congress.

Read more.

 

Key GOP lawmakers weigh in on Pruitt: The Hill caught up with two House GOP lawmakers with key oversight roles for the EPA to get their takes on the new Pruitt controversies. Rep. Ken CalvertKenneth (Ken) Stanton CalvertMORE (R-Calif.) chairs the Appropriations Committee subpanel for EPA and Rep. John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusHouse to vote on resolution opposing Russia's inclusion in G-7 Shimkus announces he will stick with plan to retire after reconsidering Shimkus says he's reconsidering retirement MORE (R-Ill.) chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee with EPA oversight.

Both lawmakers resisted criticizing Pruitt over spending, his rental from an energy lobbyist's wife, controversial raises to two aides or other controversies.

"I support him and I think he understands he has a job to do and shouldn't be making mistakes that create some perceptional issues. I think that's over with," said Calvert. "I think he'll be fine."

Shimkus called the controversies "distractions."

"He's really enacted some really good reforms and policy and has done things that EPA administrators haven't done in a long."

He said that as a fiscal conservative, proper stewardship of taxpayer money does matter to him.

"I think that when he will appear before us -- which he will --that there will be a lot of questions, both on policy and stewardship, and we will wait and see how that all turns out," Shimkus said.

Shimkus's panel is due to hear from Pruitt in an April 26 hearing. Calvert's panel hasn't announced an upcoming hearing yet, but appropriators have been bringing in officials to talk about budget requests lately, so he is likely to stop by soon.

 

Dems escalate efforts to oust Pruitt: Senate Democrats are escalating their efforts to oust Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt with a formal resolution calling on him to resign or be fired.

Democrats said Wednesday that between his aggressive deregulatory agenda and numerous scandals in recent weeks, Pruitt has no place at the EPA.

The senators plan to introduce in the coming days a "sense of the Senate" resolution calling for Pruitt to be removed.

"I believe it is time for his imperial tenure to end," Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons Senate panel advances Turkey sanctions bill despite Trump objections Overnight Defense: Bombshell report reveals officials misled public over progress in Afghanistan | Amazon accuses Trump of 'improper pressure' in Pentagon contract decision | House Judiciary holds final impeachment hearing MORE (N.M.), top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee subpanel overseeing the EPA's budget, told reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

"Not only has Scott Pruitt undermined critical environmental and health protections, he appears to be ignoring basic ethics rules that protect taxpayers from fraud and abuse," Udall said.

Pruitt has been under fire in recent weeks due to reports that he paid the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist $50 a night for the use of a condo and overspent taxpayer money on a round-the-clock security team and first-class travel. In addition, his deregulatory efforts at the EPA are unpopular with Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerKrystal Ball: Is this how Bernie Sanders will break the establishment? TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings, inflaming tensions Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments MORE (D-N.Y.) lent his support to the effort to oust Pruitt.

"On policy, what Scott Pruitt is doing at the EPA is incredibly dangerous for kids' health and the environment. Decision after decision comes out of his office, making it crystal clear he's siding with special, powerful interests, over the interests of average Americans," he said.

"When it comes to the way Pruitt conducts himself as a member of the president's Cabinet, a few words come to mind to describe him: elitism, corruption, entitlement, hypocrisy, fiscal profligacy."

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox defended Pruitt, saying he's made major progress at the agency.

"From advocating to leave the Paris Accord, working to repeal Obama's Clean Power Plan and [Waters of the United States], declaring a war on lead and cleaning up toxic Superfund sites, Administrator Pruitt is focused on advancing President Trump's agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship," Wilcox said in a statement.

Read more.

 

Gowdy says EPA isn't complying with travel probe: Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Conway spars with Wallace on whether White House will cooperate with impeachment inquiry after formal vote Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' MORE (R-S.C.) alleged Wednesday that EPA isn't complying with the probe into Pruitt's first-class travel spending.

Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to Pruitt asking for the remaining documents about whether Pruitt received waivers to fly first class on the taxpayers' dime.

The EPA provided Gowdy's staff in March with vouchers for his flights since he started at the agency last year, and provided additional information last week.

"Nevertheless, the EPA has failed to produce all of the documents requested on February 20, 2018," Gowdy wrote.

Gowdy also asked for various records relating to Pruitt's condo rental last year from the wife of an energy lobbyist for $50 for each day he slept there, including "all documents and communications" related to the lease.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the agency would respond to Gowdy "through the proper channel."

Read more.

 

IG to probe Samantha Dravis's employment records: The EPA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has agreed to review the time and attendance records of former Pruitt aide Samantha Dravis.

The OIG it will take up the review after Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperLobbying World Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies Democrats give Warren's 'Medicare for All' plan the cold shoulder MORE (D-Del.) alleged that Dravis worked very little or not at all between November 2017 and January 2018 and was likely getting paid as a full-time employee during that time.

"We have determined that the issues raised in your letter are within the authority of the OIG to review and we will do so," Inspector General Arthur Elkins told Carper, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox denied the allegations against Dravis.

"Samantha Dravis has been a senior leader at the EPA and has performed her duties faithfully for her entire tenure," he said. "It is completely baseless and absurd to assert that someone with her responsibilities and office would have been away from her duties and responsibilities for months at a time, as alleged."

Read more.

 

ON TAP THURSDAY:

The House Energy and Commerce's subcommittee on energy will hear from Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryNew Energy secretary cancels Paris trip amid mass strikes against Macron proposal Mellman: The 'lane theory' is the wrong lane to be in Overnight Energy: Critics call EPA air guidance 'an industry dream' | New Energy secretary says Trump wants to boost coal | EPA looks to speed approval of disputed industry pollution permits MORE on his department's budget request for fiscal 2019.

The House Natural Resources Committee's water, power and oceans panel will hold a hearing on the budget requests for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the four Power Marketing Administrations.

The House Natural Resources Committee's energy and mineral resources panel will hold a hearing on the benefits of the Navajo Generating Station.

The House Appropriations Committee's military construction subpanel will hold a hearing on military energy, installations and environment.

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will take on most of the costs related to revamping tunnels that deliver water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta to the Southland, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Companies drilling off California's coast recorded nearly 400 regulatory violations in the last three years, the Associated Press reports.

BP and Tesla are teaming up for a wind energy project in South Dakota with energy storage, Reuters reports.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

Check out Wednesday's stories ...

-Gowdy: EPA hasn't complied with records request for Pruitt's travel

-Interior watchdog unable to determine if staff reassignments comply with law

-Dems ramp up bid to oust Pruitt

-EPA watchdog to review former Pruitt aide's employment records

-House task force on environmental justice urges more diversity at Interior