Trump’s new EPA appointee violates his own ethics order, senators say

The appointment might run afoul of Trump’s executive order on ethics.

In this Oct. 27, 2016, file photo, supporters of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hold signs during a campaign rally in Springfield, Ohio. President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington might make it difficult for him to fill all the jobs in his administration. CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
In this Oct. 27, 2016, file photo, supporters of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hold signs during a campaign rally in Springfield, Ohio. President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington might make it difficult for him to fill all the jobs in his administration. CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

On January 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on ethics, mandating that any political appointee who worked as a registered lobbyist within two years of their appointment be barred from participating in any matter related to their previous job.

Now, two Democratic Senators are arguing that would effectively prevent the Environmental Protection Agency’s newest political appointee, former energy lobbyist Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett, from doing her job.

“Because of her activities as a registered federal lobbyist, she cannot work on legislation, communicate with Congress, or coordinate and monitor regional, state and local responses to a wide-range of major issues faced by EPA,” Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) wrote in a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Bennett has been tapped to serve as deputy associate administrator of EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations, which would make her the agency’s primary liaison between Congress and state governments. That would put her in charge of the agency’s review of legislation, communication between the agency and Congress, and implementing the legislative agenda for the agency.

Bennett would come to the agency from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), which represents more than 900 rural, consumer-owned electric utilities. As an organization, NRECA is opposed to nearly a dozen EPA regulations, including the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, and the Steam Electric Effluent Limitation Guidelines rule, which sets limits on the amount of toxic metals that can be discharged into water from power plants.

Bennett has served as a lobbyist with NRECA since 2015, working on the association’s government relations team. As recently as 2016, Bennett was lobbying both the Senate and House on the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, and “issues related to Clean Water Act enforcement.”

Under Trump’s ethics order, Bennett would be prohibited from working on issues that she lobbied on — like the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule — for two years.

In the letter to Pruitt, Whitehouse and Merkley argued that even if Bennett were to only work on a small subset of issues for which she had not lobbied, her appointment would still send a message that the EPA is not prioritizing public health.

“Even if EPA were to determine some small subset of issues from which Ms. Bennett’s prior lobbying does not disqualify her, installing someone who has lobbied for an organization that has attacked EPA’s efforts under both Republican and Democratic administrations as a public liaison for EPA suggests you have little regard for EPA’s standing and reputation before Congress or the communities in which it works to protect public health,” the letter read.

Trump’s executive order on ethics has not stopped the administration from appointing lobbyists to key positions before, however. Drew Maloney, who lobbied for the oil and gas company Hess Corporation, was appointed as the Treasury Department’s liaison to Congress. And Mike Catanzaro, who lobbied on behalf of fossil fuel interest groups like the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and Devon Energy, was appointed special assistant to the president for domestic energy and environmental policy.

It’s possible that the administration is circumventing its own executive order by granting ethics waivers to these appointees, though as Huffington Post notes, that’s hard to say, because such waivers are generally kept secret. In the letter sent to Pruitt on Monday, Whitehouse and Merkley requested information regarding any waiver that was granted to Bennett.

As of publication, the EPA had not responded to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.