Senate Democrats are probing the Koch brothers’ influence on a number of Trump administration policies at agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Interior.
The move comes after a report circulated to members of a seminar last year linked to the conservative billionaire Koch family appeared to take credit for a number of policy decisions, including the rollback of the Clean Power Plan and efforts to scale back national monuments.
Through a series of letters sent to various agency leaders and the White House on Friday, six Democratic lawmakers took aim at the leverage wielded by the Kochs. The wealthy family has spent decades directly and indirectly funding hardline conservative policies, undermining environmental protections and supporting think tanks that promote climate denial.
Writing to President Trump, the senators highlighted the prominent role the Kochs have played since the president took office.
“Long-standing members of the Koch network fill the ranks of the federal government, raising concerns about the network’s access to and influence over federal decision-making,” wrote Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), who is leading the effort. “Americans have a right to know if special interests are unduly influencing public policy decisions that have profound implications for public health, the environment, and the economy.”
Whitehouse asked for virtually all correspondence with federal employees to or from Koch employees or other representatives of Koch Industries — the largest privately owned energy company in the United States — or its subsidiaries and related groups. Data on political hires with Koch ties was also requested.
The letters are co-signed by Democratic Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as Tom Udall (NM), Ron Wyden (OR), and Catherine Cortez Masto (NV).
The letters come after a report from the Koch-backed Seminar Network last December hailed victories in the first 11 months of Trump’s tenure in office. Among the efforts labeled as a success was Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. Also included were efforts to streamline infrastructure project permitting and a review of the Antiquities Act, a more than 100-year-old law protecting archaeological sites on public lands and allowing the president to protect and designate national monuments.
In addition to Trump, letters were also sent to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, among others. Senators asked Pruitt for documents relating to the repeal of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which worked to reduce carbon dioxide emissions with a focus on reigning in coal and encouraging renewable energy alternatives. The Trump administration has sought to repeal the initiative in an effort to help revive the coal industry.
Pruitt was also asked about the repeal of the Waters of the United States rule outlining federal water protections, which Trump has called “one of the worst examples of federal regulation.”
Senators indicated they were also seeking information on a shift away from so-called “sue and settle” policies at the EPA. Under Pruitt, the agency has moved towards fighting lawsuits with environmental organizations in court, rather than settling them, a change that has been criticized by activists.
Zinke was similarly queried for documents pertaining to environmental policies linked to Koch influence, including ending a ban on fracking and backing a plan to reduce several national monuments.
In December, Trump announced plans to shrink Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by 1.1 million acres, along with another Utah monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante, which the administration wants to reduce to half of its original size. Documents obtained by the New York Times last month indicate oil and gas drilling served as a key incentive in the decision, despite condemnation by indigenous communities including the Navajo Nation.
It is common for special interests to lobby the government, but the extent of Koch influence on Trump administration officials has alarmed progressives and environmental advocates.
A recent ThinkProgress review of Pruitt’s public calendar found that the EPA administrator scheduled 10 speeches to be given at conservative think tanks during his first year at the agency — many of them funded or backed by the Kochs in some way.
Zinke has also given speeches to Koch-backed organizations and Interior Department-backed efforts to reduce national monuments in Utah have been linked directly to the conservative Utah-based Sutherland Institute, which receives much of its funding from the Kochs.
Following the letters, Democrats reportedly plan to raise the issue in the Senate this week, highlighting the “web of Koch-funded front groups advocating for business-friendly policies, sowing doubt in the public debate on important issues, and planting operatives within the halls of government.”
The Labor and Treasury Departments also received letters, as did the National Labor Relations Board, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the White House Office of Management and Budget. Recipients have until May 15 to respond to the requests.