Internal emails show top EPA official lobbied to loosen air pollution rules before joining agency

Drain the swamp right into the EPA.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee after ethics scandals April 26, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee after ethics scandals April 26, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

On May 22, 2017, six months before he would be confirmed to a top regulatory position within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Bill Wehrum — then working as an energy industry attorney for a prominent D.C. firm — wrote to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s scheduler, Sydney Hupp, with a request.

“I am writing on behalf of the Brick Industry Association (BIA) to request a meeting with Administrator Pruitt,” Wehrum wrote, explaining that he was hoping to get a meeting to discuss new emissions standards for hazardous pollutants associated with brick manufacturing. 

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On June 15, Wehrum continued, a few members of the BIA would be visiting Washington and hoped to discuss “the enormous impact that the rule is having on the industry and some of BIA’s ideas as to how the rule could be improved and the burden lessened.”

Pruitt was unavailable to meet with the BIA members that day, but according to emails recently made public by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act request, Wehrum did secure a thirty-minute meeting with Samantha Dravis, a top political aide to the administrator.

Six months later, Wehrum now oversees the office in charge of the very regulations that were the subject of his client meeting with Dravis.

While the EPA has not taken any official action regarding the emissions standards for brick production, the incident highlights the extremely close relationship between former lobbyists and regulators under Administrator Pruitt, even as President Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed to “drain the swamp” and remove lobbyist influence from Washington.

An email setting up a meeting between Samantha Dravis and Bill Wehrum. (CREDIT: Sierra Club)
An email setting up a meeting between Samantha Dravis and Bill Wehrum. (CREDIT: Sierra Club)

“This is very disturbing – yet another example of the Trump Administration hiring industry lobbyists to run EPA and weaken pollution control regulations from inside the agency, regardless of the harm to human health,” Tom Pelton, spokesman for the Environmental Integrity Project, told ThinkProgress via email. “It’s supposed to be the EPA — not the IPA, Industry Protection Agency.”

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Wehrum is hardly the only former lobbyist who has joined the EPA under the Trump administration. According to ProPublica, which compiled a database of lobbyists in the administration, 12 former lobbyists are currently at the EPA — and many, like Wehrum, are working in offices within the agency that directly deal with the industries whose interests they once represented.

Two of those employees have signed ethics waivers allowing them to bypass Trump’s ethics order barring former lobbyists from engaging in work related to their former clients. But for people like Wehrum — who currently oversees the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, which develops regulations limiting air pollution — it’s nearly impossible to untangle their previous work with their current position as a regulator.

Wehrum has not been registered to lobby since 2010, but has publicly represented industry clients in a wide range of legal issues — and, in at least one instance revealed in the above emails, privately lobbied the agency over regulations.

Wehrum was previously nominated to head the office in 2006, but his nomination was rescinded after Democratic lawmakers — who then had a majority in the Senate — blocked it over conflict of interest concerns.

Past concerns about Wehrum’s conflicts of interest, however, have not dissipated. Since Wehrum was confirmed to the agency in November, Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly pressed for answers about whether or not he is participating in regulatory decisions regarding his future clients.

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Wehrum and the EPA have not answered those questions — but Wehrum’s meeting with Dravis in June shows that he was certainly involved in pressing the agency to loosen regulatory burdens shortly before taking over as top regulator himself.

“This revelation is classic Scott Pruitt: dirty dealing leading to dirtier air. An industry lobbyist sought a meeting with Scott Pruitt’s EPA to seek loosening of rules preventing the dumping of air pollutants such as mercury,” Representative Don Beyer (D-VA) told ThinkProgress via email. “The meeting happened secretly, and then that lobbyist was hired to help Pruitt and Donald Trump dismantle clean air standards. Scott Pruitt’s corruption is rampant and repugnant, and he should be fired.”

Wehrum isn’t the only lobbyist-turned-EPA-employee to have had a relationship with the agency or Pruitt before his confirmation.

On May 24, 2017, Scott Pruitt spoke at the lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels, which represents clients with issues currently before the EPA (the firm represents the CEO of the company hoping to build the Pebble Mine in Alaska, for instance, which has been mired in regulatory uncertainty).

The speech is referenced in an email sent to Sydney Hupp by Daren Coppock, president and CEO of the Agricultural Retailers Association, who says that Pruitt’s comments were “outstanding and a breath of fresh air from EPA.” The talk is not listed on Pruitt’s public schedule.

An email from Daren Coppock to Sydney Hupp discussing Scott Pruitt's speech to a lobbying group. (CREDIT: Sierra Club)
An email from Daren Coppock to Sydney Hupp discussing Scott Pruitt's speech to a lobbying group. (CREDIT: Sierra Club)

In the email, Coppock mentions that he received Hupp’s contact information from then-Faegre Baker Daniels lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, who was confirmed last month as the Deputy EPA Administrator, the number two position within the agency. As a lobbyist, Wheeler managed the firm’s energy and natural resources practice, working on behalf of clients like Murray Energy, the largest privately-owned coal firm in the United States.

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Neither the EPA nor Faegre Baker Daniels responded to ThinkProgress’ questions as to why the meeting was left off of Pruitt’s public schedule or what was discussed.

Update: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that, at the time of the meeting, Wehrum was not registered as a lobbyist and instead was working as an industry attorney.