EPA Aide: Scrutiny of ‘Politically Charged’ Records Requests

By ELLEN KNICKMEYER

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency assigns public-records requests from environmental groups or others that it sees as “politically charged” to special internal review, a top agency official told congressional investigators in one of several federal probes surrounding Scott Pruitt, the scandal-plagued former administrator who resigned this month.

EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson described one such records request, from the Sierra Club, as a “fishing expedition.” At the same time, he acknowledged directing the agency to respond to a public records request from a pork industry association that was seeking evidence in the pork group’s own tussles over environmental regulations.

The accounts are in a transcript released Friday of Jackson’s question-and-answer session this summer with staffers in the House Oversight Committee’s investigation of a series of ethics allegations involving Pruitt.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, cited the EPA chief of staff’s account Friday in a letter asking committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to subpoena the EPA for documents about its handling of records requests made under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The EPA and Oversight Committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday morning.

Pruitt quit July 5 as support from the Trump administration and Republicans crumbled amid months of revelations about his free-handed spending on travel and security and allegations that he misused his federal office for personal gain. Many of the most-damaging allegations stemmed from EPA public records released after the Sierra Club and other organizations went to court to force the agency under Pruitt to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

Spokeswoman Kentia Elbaum of the EPA Office of Inspector General, said Thursday her office was continuing several audits and investigations already launched on Pruitt’s travel, security spending and other matters.

News organizations, including The Associated Press, have been told that the EPA under Pruitt would take months or longer to comply with their public records requests. An AP analysis this spring found that the federal government censored, withheld or said it couldn’t find records sought by citizens, journalists and others more often last year than at any point in the past decade.

Some government agencies under previous administrations also have directed their political appointees to review FOIA requests to determine what records and information to surrender.

Jackson confirmed to congressional investigators earlier testimony from colleagues, who told the oversight committee staffers that Pruitt directed political appointees be involved in reviewing records requests.

Pruitt also initiated an unusual “first in, first out” system of handling records requests, so that requests that may have lingered for years under the Obama administration would be processed before new requests for records from Pruitt’s time at the agency, Jackson and other staffers said.

In the transcript, Jackson describes a Sierra Club FOIA request that sought records of communications by Pruitt and his top aides, including Jackson.

“It was just a fishing expedition,” Jackson told the oversight committee staffers. “And so when I say it’s politically charged, there’s no real FOIA, you know, Freedom of Information Act reason for it, it is just simply submitted to us to see what we will produce.”

A congressional staffer, not identified in the transcript, responds, “So you don’t think that intercommunications between the administrator, senior staff with outside entities — you don’t think there’s a public interest, a legitimate public interest in those?”

Jackson responded that there was a large and legitimate public interest, but contended, “FOIA is not meant to allow open-ended requests and to be as if, you know, the requester is a fly on the wall.”

The thousands of pages that the Sierra Club ultimately obtained of EPA political appointees’ internal communications includes an email exchange in July 2017 in which Jackson directs an EPA staffer “to be responsive” to a records request from the National Pork Producers Council, made the month before. Pork trade group representatives wrote back Jackson that July 13 to thank him, saying the EPA was wrapping up the records requested.

Jackson told the congressional investigators he could not recall personally helping any other group get help obtaining EPA records under the federal records law.

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