Three former aides to Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt confirmed to congressional investigators that the EPA delayed producing emails and other government documents sought by members of the public through public-records requests by choosing instead to respond to old petitions made during the Obama administration first.
The “first-in, first out” tactic for requests made through the Freedom of Information Act is yet another example of the EPA restricting what records make their way into the public eye since Pruitt has taken office. That public-records policy was described in a letter sent Monday to Pruitt by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, which requested documents from the administrator.
That committee’s investigation into Pruitt is just one of at least a dozen federal inquiries the EPA chief is facing over his questionable spending and management decisions at the agency.
His tenure has also drawn the scrutiny of journalists, environmentalists and other members of the public who have filed thousands of FOIA requests with the EPA since Pruitt has taken office and attempted to unravel environmental rules put in place by the previous administration.
Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff, told the committee’s staff that, facing that torrent of requests, Pruitt instructed his staff “not to respond to FOIA requests regarding your tenure until requests from the Obama Administration had been completed,” according to the letter addressed to Pruitt.
Two other former Pruitt aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, confirmed the “first-in, first out” policy, according to the letter.
In response to a request for comment about the letter, the EPA noted that it has been flooded with FOIA requests since the start of Pruitt’s tenure even as it sits on a backlog of requests.
“Since the beginning of this administration, EPA has seen a dramatic increase in FOIA requests as compared to the last administration, including a nearly 200% increase in the Administrator’s office alone, and the Agency is working to release them in a timely manner,” EPA spokeswoman Kelsi Daniell said. “When Administrator Pruitt arrived at EPA he inherited a backlog of FOIA requests, some dating back to 2008, and over the last year and a half, EPA has worked tirelessly to clear this backlog.”
Daniell added that the agency will respond to details of the letter “through the proper channels.”
According to Cummings, both Justice Department guidelines and the EPA’s own FOIA regulations call for the agency to complete simpler requests ahead of more complex ones, instead of just tackling them in the order they are received.
Greenwalt, at one time Pruitt’s senior counsel, objected to the “first in, first out” policy. A better way to handle the flood of FOIA requests, she told the committee according to the letter, was to “evaluate them as they come in, recognizing that some FOIAs are larger than others and more time-consuming and more complicated than others.”
Greenwalt also told the committee that she personally reviewed some FOIA responses to identify “potential additional redactions,” according to the letter. Both Greenwalt and Hupp left their jobs at the EPA last week.
Beyond the “first in, first out” policy, Pruitt’s political appointees also sought to tighten the reins over public-records requests by reviewing them personally.
Jonathan Newton, an attorney-adviser at the agency, told FOIA coordinators in a June 2017 email to send pending releases for review to three political appointees at least “48 hours before the release.” The three Pruitt aides tasked with scrutinizing the responses were his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson; Liz Bowman, then his top communications officer; and another EPA spokeswoman at the time, Amy Graham.
A month later, Jackson issued a memo to the heads of six EPA offices to “implement a pilot project” centralizing the completion of many FOIA requests in the Office of General Counsel.
According to a 2015 report, the EPA’s inspector general, the agency’s internal watchdog for waste and abuse, “did not find any indications of political interference or delay in the release of FOIA documents” at the EPA during former president Barack Obama’s time in office.
Some FOIA requesters, such as the Sierra Club, have had to sue the EPA to get documents released. A cache of emails released to the environmental group helped fuel news stories about Pruitt.
One of those email exchanges showed, for example, that Pruitt spent $1,560 on a dozen customized fountain pens from a Washington jewelry store emblazoned with the EPA’s seal and Pruitt’s signature.
“Scott Pruitt will do everything possible to operate in the shadows because every time his veil of secrecy is pulled back, we find more reasons he should resign,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Documents obtained by the Sierra Club’s FOIA litigation have revealed even more about Pruitt’s unethical and potentially illegal behavior, so it’s no wonder he’d try and obstruct the process.”
Even without such restriction, bureaucrats often complete FOIA requests much more slowly than petitioners prefer. “FOIA is often a slow and difficult process, but under Pruitt, the EPA has taken FOIA obstruction to a whole new level,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, a watchdog group that has filed more than 70 FOIA requests with the EPA.
Evers added that “more often than not, we’ve been forced to go to court to release documents that should belong to the public.”