Top EPA officials are working for private companies on the side

Obama's "ethics czar" describes decision by EPA to allow outside work as "insane."

Congressional Republicans have taken a hands-off approach to investigating potential ethics violations by President Donald Trump and his political appointees. CREDIT: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
Congressional Republicans have taken a hands-off approach to investigating potential ethics violations by President Donald Trump and his political appointees. CREDIT: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is giving top officials permission to moonlight for private companies in their off-time, a practice that could conflict with their official duties at the federal agency.

Two of the most prominent EPA officials currently under scrutiny are John Konkus, who serves as the EPA’s deputy associate administrator for the Office of Public Affairs, and Patrick Davis, an EPA senior adviser.

Konkus received approval from ethics officials at the EPA to work outside the agency as a media consultant. He was approved to advise clients on “strategy, mail and media production,” according to an ethics form signed last August, E&E News reported Monday. The EPA is refusing to disclose Konkus’s clients, raising more questions about potential conflicts of interest with his official and outside work.

Prior to joining the Trump administration, Konkus worked as an executive with Jamestown Associates, a political consulting firm. According to the firm’s website, Konkus “worked on the ground tirelessly to help President Trump win Florida.”

Davis, a top official in the EPA’s Denver office and former director of Trump’s presidential campaign in Colorado, was given approval in February 2017 to work as the sales director for Telephone Town Hall Meeting, which does outreach for legislators and political campaigns.

Congressional Republicans have taken a hands-off approach to investigating potential ethics violations by President Trump and his political appointees. Democratic lawmakers and government watchdog groups have tried to fill the void by keeping a watchful eye on the conduct of the EPA and other agencies. A group of Democratic lawmakers, for example, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Monday raising “serious concerns” about the impartiality of senior political appointees at the agency.

“Mr. Davis’ simultaneous roles as an EPA advisor for public engagement and a sales director for Telephone Town Hall Meeting serve to create possible confusion among stakeholders and raises further concerns of potential conflicts of interest,” four top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote Monday in their letter to Pruitt.

According to agency records, several current EPA political appointees have received approval from EPA’s Alternate Designated Agency Ethics official to engage in outside activity for compensation. The Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee received the records in response to a July 13, 2017 letter from Pallone to Pruitt.

Norman Eisen, who was known as the “ethics czar” when he worked as special assistant to the president for ethics and government reform under President Obama from January 2009 to January 2011, described the decision by the EPA to allow the officials to do outside work as “insane.”

“In the Obama White House, I even made people quit uncompensated non-profit outside positions because of conflict risks,” Eisen, who now serves as senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a tweet on Tuesday. “This is FOR profit work that could conflict with official duties.”

The EPA had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress by the time this article was published.

The revelation that Pruitt’s staff is moonlighting for private clients while working as full-time employees at the EPA “brings suspicions of pay to play to a whole new level,” Sierra Club Legislative Director Melinda Pierce said Monday in a statement.

“And if Konkus is not working for polluters directly, the public is forced to ask whether he is running a partisan political operation from within the Agency instead,” Pierce said. “The public deserves to know who Konkus is really working for: the American people, corporate polluters, or partisan political clients, and that information should be made public immediately.”

Konkus has been questioned by congressional Democrats for his approved request to do media consulting for clients whose names were not made public.

“Mr. Konkus previously served as an executive vice president at Jamestown Associates, a Republican political consulting firm that lists on its website services such as campaign advertisement production, direct mail, and media buying,” the Democrats — Reps. Frank Pallone (NJ), Kathy Castor (FL), Diana DeGette (CO), and Paul Tonko (NY) — wrote in their letter to Pruitt. “Donald Trump for President, Inc. appears to be one of the firm’s premiere clients.”

After joining the administration last year, Konkus, who has little environmental expertise, was given unprecedented oversight to vet hundreds of millions of dollars in annual EPA grants. His primary focus in 2017 was killing grants and awards that mention “climate change,” no matter how effective the initiatives might be in cutting costs, creating jobs, and saving lives.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Konkus, who draws an annual salary of $145,000, is responsible for public affairs, media relations, and other duties in his senior executive role. He is also responsible for staging events featuring Pruitt.

“Konkus could be counseling Pruitt on EPA business by day and providing strategic advice to industry at night. This could only happen in the Trump administration, where commitment to public service is as foreign and irrelevant as ethical behavior,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said Tuesday in a statement.

Under Pruitt, who rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, the EPA has taken the unprecedented step of “putting a political operative — Konkus — in charge of vetting” hundreds of millions of dollars in annual EPA grants, the Washington Post reported last September.

“This issue highlights the ineffectiveness of the EPA’s ethics office to protect the integrity of the agency’s decision-making process and the lack of ethical leadership at the head of the organization,” Jordan Libowitz, spokesperson for the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Tuesday in an email to ThinkProgress.

“By granting Konkus authorization to engage in outside work, the ethics official and EPA’s leadership failed to foresee the possibility that corruptive forces may be at work to enrich Konkus personally. Given his responsibilities in the grant-making function at EPA, this is completely inappropriate.”

Konkus was reportedly involved in cancelling an EPA grant to the Bay Journal, an award-winning newspaper that had been continually funded by the agency since 1991 through multiple changes in presidential administrations, both Republican and Democratic. According to the newspaper, its mission is “to produce independent, unbiased reporting that informs the public about environmental issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay.”

Last week, the Bay Journal succeeded in having its grant restored after the EPA reversed itself in the face of a legal challenge and pressure from Maryland senators. The newspaper’s lawyers argued that the EPA’s decision was “unlawfully motivated by the political whims” of Konkus.

After an appeal of the grant cancellation was filed with the agency last November, internal EPA documents showed that Konkus pushed to terminate the Bay Journal’s grant, explaining that in his view “the American public doesn’t trust the press.”

The Bay Journal, he said, “should not have weighed in” on Chesapeake Bay Program funding issues by reporting articles about proposed budget cuts, according to Democracy Forward, the nonprofit legal organization that filed the appeal on the Bay Journal’s behalf.

As the Democratic lawmakers wrote about Konkus in their letter to Pruitt: “A political appointee cutting millions of dollars in funding to EPA grant recipients on what appears to be a politically motivated basis, while at the same time being authorized to serve as a paid media consultant to unnamed outside clients, raises serious concerns of potential conflicts of interest.”