A key architect of the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken federal climate rules is under scrutiny by a federal watchdog for his dealings with industry players who lobbied the government to ease carbon pollution limits.
It is the third inquiry into whether Bill Wehrum, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency’s air policy division from November 2017 until last month, violated federal ethics rules.
The EPA’s inspector general is looking at Wehrum’s interactions with his former law firm as well as several of its clients, who rank among the nation’s major emitters of greenhouse gases linked to climate change, according to two individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“This is yet another example where the Trump administration has done just the opposite of ‘draining the swamp,’ by empowering polluting industries and installing those industries’ lobbyists and lawyers at the highest levels of our federal government,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
In February, The Washington Post reported on two instances in which Wehrum appeared to violate President Trump’s ethics pledge, which limits political appointees from interacting with their former employers and clients for two years after taking office. Wehrum, who worked at a firm now called Hunton Andrews Kurth, is also under investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Democrats on the Senate environment panel.
On Sunday night, Carper and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) sent an investigative report to the inspector general’s office, identifying new cases in which Wehrum allegedly violated the ethics pledge by meeting with clients he did not disclose on his recusal statement. They also said the inspector general should look into EPA senior counsel David Harlow, a lawyer who worked with Wehrum at his former law firm.
The multiple probes highlight the extent to which some Trump appointees’ past work in the private sector has intersected with their roles in the federal government. Before joining the administration, Wehrum worked for a decade at Hunton and focused on air policy, the office he then headed at the EPA for a year and a half. Harlow, senior counsel to Wehrum, worked as a Hunton attorney before joining the agency in October 2017.
“At EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, it appears Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Harlow used those positions of public trust to dismantle decades-old protections for clean air and climate at the behest of Hunton-associated groups,” Carper said in a statement Sunday night.
In their letter to acting EPA inspector general Charles J. Sheehan, Carper and Whitehouse urged “in the strongest possible terms not to abandon or decline to pursue work on this matter in the wake of Mr. Wehrum’s departure from the agency.”
In an email Monday, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said the Democrats were making unfounded allegations in an effort to attack the administration’s policy agenda.
“The Senate EPW minority’s report and letter to EPA’s Office of Inspector General is a replay of old allegations that have repeatedly been answered by the agency and Mr. Wehrum,” Abboud said. “This administration will continue to focus on improving upon the environmental successes we have already seen in the first two and half years.”
Asked about the inspector general’s inquiry, spokeswoman Jennifer Kaplan said in an email: “Our office doesn’t confirm or deny the existence of investigations, so we aren’t able to comment on that statement either way.”
Wehrum could not be reached for comment on Sunday. In an interview in February, in which he appeared to skirt the line on what is permissible under federal ethics rules, Wehrum said he had determined that he was in compliance.
“I have, from day one, tried to be absolutely strict and assiduous as to what I do about complying with my ethical obligations, because it doesn’t do me any good, and it doesn’t do the agency any good, to be doing things that people see as unethical,” he said.
Under the ethics pledge, political appointees may meet with former employers or clients only when the meetings are open to all interested parties — interpreted to mean four other participants who were not clients.
In December 2017, Wehrum met with two former clients at his old firm without consulting in advance with ethics officials, even though they had cautioned him about such interactions. That same month, Wehrum weighed in on a decision that appeared to benefit a client of his former firm, DTE Energy.
Evidence discovered in recent months by congressional investigators in both chambers raises the question of whether Wehrum’s ties to other companies and trade groups posed other potential conflicts of interest.
According to the Senate report, four industry groups represented by Hunton — the Utility Air Regulatory Group, Air Permitting Forum, NAAQS Implementation Coalition and CCS Alliance — have advocated regulatory rollbacks that the EPA advanced during Wehrum’s tenure. In one instance, the agency included language in a policy memo that was copied verbatim from a document Hunton submitted to the EPA on behalf of the Air Permitting Forum.
An aide to the House Energy and Commerce Committee said the panel has obtained documents indicating that each of the more than 30 members of the Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG) were also individual clients of Hunton. If so, Wehrum and Harlow would have had to recuse themselves from additional interactions with several companies that have backed the EPA’s recent moves to ease federal limits on air, water and coal ash pollution from power plants.
Wehrum has rejected the idea that he represented the individual members of UARG, in addition to the overall group. “That’s not my understanding,” he told Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) during a hearing last month.
Hunton Andrews Kurth issued a statement Monday reiterating the idea that it did not represent members of the Utility Air Regulatory Group, which included some of the nation’s biggest companies operating coal-fired power plants, as individual clients.
“Judicial and administrative actions have been taken in the name of the Group to advance Group positions, not in the name of any individual group member to advance its individual interest,” the statement said.
Senate investigators, meanwhile, have determined that Wehrum failed to disclose three court clients that should have been listed on his ethics recusal statement, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Wehrum had at least six meetings with the automakers’ group, a key player in one of the Trump administration’s most significant climate rollbacks: the freezing of gas mileage standards for cars and light trucks.
In the report, Carper and Whitehouse noted that meetings with the alliance appear “to violate Ethics in Government Act regulation and the Trump ethics pledge” because the six sessions, which included a speech to the group’s board, were not open to all interested parties.
Abboud said that Wehrum’s involvement in the case involving the alliance ended as of Nov. 9, 2015, so that his period of recusal for the group would have ended shortly after joining the EPA, before he began meeting with the trade association.
Jeff Holmstead, a partner at Bracewell who headed the EPA’s office of air and radiation under President George W. Bush, said in a phone interview that appointees need to observe federal ethics rules and cannot weigh in on “a particular matter involving specific parties” that they have represented within two years of taking office. But Holmstead, who has clients in the power sector, added that there was nothing wrong with adopting policy ideas espoused by outside groups.
“The whole purpose of asking for comments is so you can get good ideas from folks outside the agency,” he said. “A policy idea should stand or fall on its own, not based on who suggested it.”