EPA aide: Scrutiny of 'politically charged' records requests
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency assigns public-records requests from environmental groups or others that it sees as "politically charged" to special internal review, a top agency official told congressional staffers investigating the actions of Scott Pruitt, the scandal-plagued former administrator who resigned this month.
EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson told congressional investigators one such records request, from the Sierra Club, was a "fishing expedition." At the same time, he acknowledged directing the agency to respond to a public records request from a pork industry association that was seeking evidence in the pork group's own tussles over environmental matters.
The accounts are in a transcript released Friday of Jackson's session this summer with staffers in the House Oversight Committee's investigation of ethics allegations involving Pruitt.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, cited the EPA chief of staff's account Friday in a letter asking committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to subpoena the EPA over its response to requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Jackson said in a telephone interview that the EPA has worked its way through what he called a 10-year backlog of public records requests from the Obama administration. Under Pruitt, the agency was receiving up to 60 new FOIA requests weekly, he said.
"We can't keep up with that. Nobody can keep up with that. What we do here is try to process them as quickly as we possibly can," Jackson said. Senior officials and others targeted in records requests review the agency's responses, but "they don't hold it up."
He faulted Oversight Committee Democrats for what he said was selective release of "bits and pieces" of closed-door testimony from current and former EPA staffers about Pruitt and his administration of the agency. He called for the committee to release "the full transcript of everyone that has gone into it and be done with it."
Committee spokeswoman Amanda Gonzalez declined comment.
Pruitt quit July 5 after months of revelations about his free-handed spending on travel and security and allegations that he misused his federal office for personal gain. Many of the most-damaging allegations stemmed from EPA public records released after the Sierra Club and other organizations went to court to compel the agency to respond to FOIA requests.
"The Freedom of Information Act is a law meant to provide transparency so that the public can see how our government works, not an opportunity to do favors for corporate polluters and play politics," Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club's legislative director, said in a statement Friday.
Spokeswoman Kentia Elbaum of the EPA Office of Inspector General said Thursday her office was continuing several audits and investigations already launched on Pruitt's travel, security spending and other matters.
News organizations, including The Associated Press, have been told that the EPA under Pruitt would take months or longer to comply with records requests. An AP analysis this spring found that the federal government censored, withheld or said it couldn't find records sought by citizens, journalists and others more often last year than at any point in the past decade.
Some government agencies under previous administrations also have directed their political appointees to review FOIA requests to determine what information to surrender.
Jackson confirmed to investigators earlier testimony from colleagues, who told the oversight committee staffers that Pruitt's administration directed political appointees be involved in reviewing records requests.
Pruitt also initiated an unusual "first in, first out" system, so that requests that may have lingered for years would be processed before new requests, Jackson and other staffers said.
The EPA said in a statement Friday that what it called "awareness reviews" of records requests "allows the press office, congressional affairs office and senior officials to be informed of documents being released in response to FOIA requests, to facilitate inter-office coordination, and to prepare responses to inquiries."
In the transcript, Jackson describes a Sierra Club FOIA request that sought emails and other communication by Pruitt and top aides, including Jackson.
"It was just a fishing expedition," Jackson told the committee staffers. "And so when I say it's politically charged, there's no real FOIA, you know, Freedom of Information Act reason for it, it is just simply submitted to us to see what we will produce."
A congressional staffer, not identified in the transcript, responds, "So you don't think that intercommunications between the administrator, senior staff with outside entities — you don't think there's a public interest, a legitimate public interest in those?"
Jackson responded that there was a large and legitimate public interest, but contended, "FOIA is not meant to allow open-ended requests and to be as if, you know, the requester is a fly on the wall."
The thousands of pages that the Sierra Club ultimately obtained includes an email exchange in July 2017 in which Jackson directs an EPA staffer "to be responsive" to a records request from the National Pork Producers Council, made the month before. Pork trade group representatives wrote back Jackson that July 13 to thank him, saying the EPA was wrapping up the records requested.
Jackson said Friday he was responding to a direct request for assistance.