ThinkProgress

Scott Pruitt doesn’t let investigations get in the way of his regulatory rollback

The Government Accountability Office agreed to investigate Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's appearance in an industry video. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The number of investigations into Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt keeps growing as more information comes out about his ties with polluting industries and his use of federal funds. A Democratic leader has revealed that the EPA, under Pruitt’s leadership, is being investigated by Congress’ watchdog agency for potential violations of anti-lobbying and anti-propaganda laws through his relationship with big agriculture.

Soon after he took over as EPA chief, the Oklahoma Bar Association opened an inquiry into Pruitt’s testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing regarding his use of personal email to conduct official business as Oklahoma attorney general. Pruitt also has become the target of the EPA’s inspector general over frequent trips that he made to Oklahoma on the taxpayer’s dime.

Most recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed to investigate Pruitt’s appearance in an industry video where he calls on ranchers and farmers to file comments on the Clean Water Rule. This latest Pruitt investigation was made public late last Friday by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

DeFazio and other Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to the GAO last month asking the watchdog to provide a legal opinion on whether Pruitt’s appearance in the promotional video for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a lobbying group for the country’s largest meat producers, violated legal prohibitions on the use of taxpayer funds for lobbying and publicity or propaganda purposes.

In an October 31 response to DeFazio, the GAO said it accepted the Democratic lawmakers’ request to look into the video, explaining that such an investigation is “within the scope of its authority.” The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has jurisdiction over the EPA’s water programs. Federal law prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used, directly or indirectly, for “publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States.”

“We are deeply troubled that these recent EPA actions are the latest examples of EPA’s inappropriate use of taxpayer resources,” DeFazio and his colleagues wrote in their letter requesting the investigation. In the video, Pruitt clearly seeks to convey a message of opposition to the Clean Water Rule, the lawmakers wrote. “The viewing audience may be unable to discern the source of that message, because in the video, the administrator’s image, name, and title appear alongside the name and logo of the NCBA,” the letter said.

In the video, Pruitt urges farmers and ranchers to submit comments on the EPA’s efforts to withdraw from the Clean Water Rule, also known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. The video displays a graphic encouraging viewers to visit the website of the NCBA “to file your WOTUS comments today.” The association’s website includes a number of hyperlinks urging viewers to contact their elected officials in Congress and urge congressional action to overturn the Clean Water Rule.

Pruitt says in the video that the EPA is “trying to fix the challenges from the 2015 rule where the Obama administration re-imagined their authority under the Clean Water Act.” The Clean Water Rule “created great uncertainty,” Pruitt says. “We are fixing that” and want to hear from stakeholders “about how to get it right as we go forward,” he adds.

The EPA defended Pruitt’s appearance in the video. “EPA’s commitment to an open, transparent process to redefine WOTUS includes engagement with all stakeholders,” agency spokesperson Liz Bowman said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

From private flights to enjoying an 18-member security detail, Pruitt also has come under scrutiny for how he uses taxpayer money. The EPA spent almost $25,000 on a secure phone booth inside Pruitt’s headquarters office. The EPA chief also has — like former HHS Secretary Tom Price — been opting to travel by private jet.

“While the price tag for Pruitt’s phone booth should outrage every taxpayer, it’s who he’s speaking with and what they’re plotting that should be the most concerning to the American people,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group President, a nonprofit environmental group.

In an October 23 editorial, the Denver Post criticized Pruitt for agreeing to appear in the NCBA video when he visited Colorado in August. “Now that he’s head of the EPA, he should know better than to actually appear in an industry propaganda video while traveling in his official capacity. He should, but, apparently, he does not,” the newspaper said.

An NCBA official, in a letter to the Denver Post, accused the newspaper of getting the facts wrong about the video. The EPA approached the association for possible venues near Denver where Pruitt could meet with farmers and ranchers. The association asked the EPA if it could interview Pruitt at the event.

“NCBA filmed, edited and published the video without any direction from the EPA,” Colin Woodall, senior vice president of government affairs for the NCBA, wrote in the letter.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration officially began repealing the Clean Water Rule, which was finalized by the Obama administration in 2015. The rule sought to clarify the legal jurisdiction of the federal government under the Clean Water Act. In doing so, it expanded protection for two million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands. The rule was widely criticized by industry  — including farmers, fossil fuel producers, and manufacturers —  as well as by Republican lawmakers, who called the rule an example of overreach by a federal agency.

In a similar investigation during the Obama administration, the GAO found that the EPA broke the law on multiple occasions with “covert propaganda” on the Clean Water Rule. The watchdog found that a pair of social media campaigns conducted by the EPA, under the leadership of former Administrator Gina McCarthy, broke laws that prohibit federal agencies from promoting or lobbying for their own actions. According to The Hill, the Obama EPA defended its practices, saying that “using social media to educate the public about our work is an integral part of our mission.”

More than 10 years ago, in one of the most prominent cases of covert domestic government propaganda, the GAO concluded that the Department of Education, under the George W. Bush administration, violated federal law when it paid for right-wing commentator Armstrong Williams to advance its policies. Williams received $240,000 in federal money to promote the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act through his syndicated television show and newspaper columns, without acknowledging his relationship with the department, the GAO said in a 2005 report.

Williams rebounded from the startling revelations. In 2016, he served as a spokesman and adviser for the presidential campaign of Ben Carson, who now serves as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Williams still works as a syndicated columnist where his opinions can be found in The Hill and other publications.

Like Williams’ ability to overcome the Department of Education scandal, Pruitt isn’t letting his own controversies get in the way of his anti-environmental protection agenda. In the NCBA video, Pruitt parrots industry talking points, like the idea that the Clean Water Rule would have regulated a puddle, a dry creek bed, or drainage ditches across the country.

Brian Palmer, a reporter for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in an August column that Pruitt should not be helping ranchers and farmers evade environmental rules: the federal government already has an entity — the Department of Agriculture — that promotes food production as part of its mission. “Ranchers should be asking the EPA for help in complying with the rules. Instead, the EPA is asking them for help to weaken them,” Palmer wrote.