THE LIGHTBULB

The press office of the Environmental Protection Agency has emulated President Trump's combative communication style since he took office, sometimes challenging news reporters and other perceived foes in news releases and on social media.

One tweet, however, has attracted the attention of a government watchdog agency.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that enforces the limits on political speech by federal employees under the Hatch Act, is investigating an official EPA tweet that appeared to ding the Democratic Party. That's according to AFGE Council 238,  a union that represents EPA employees, which filed a complaint about the tweet. 

The message in question — sent on April 13 from @EPA, the agency's main Twitter account — went out shortly after former coal and nuclear lobbyist Andrew Wheeler was confirmed last month by the Senate to be the EPA's deputy administrator. Wheeler was voted through on a 53-to-45 vote, with the vast majority of Senate Democrats opposing his nomination.

The Hatch Act of 1939 prohibits federal employees, except for the president and other high-level officials, from using government resources to support political candidates and parties.

The subject of the tweet, Wheeler, is not running for office. But Kathleen Clark, an ethics law professor at the Washington University School of Law, said the Twitter message may constitute a violation of the law because it mentions Trump's rival party.

“Part of the purpose of the Hatch Act is to assure the public that government resources are not used to benefit a political party,” Clark said. “The government is supposed to be better than that.”

AFGE Council 238, which represents about 8,000 EPA employees across the country, said it heard directly from the special counsel's office that the watchdog was opening an investigation. The union had filed a complaint about the tweet with the special counsel's office, a small investigative bureau designed to protect whistleblowers and probe potential Hatch Act violations.

Carolyn Martorana, an OSC attorney, wrote this week to union president John O'Grady that “I am assigned to investigate your allegations,” according to an email the union shared with The Washington Post. 

While the special counsel's office confirmed to The Post it received the union's complaint, spokesman Zachary Kurz said “we’re unable confirm or deny any open or closed cases." For its part, the EPA said it was “not aware of an investigation related to this tweet." Agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox said that “EPA employees strive to comply with all applicable statutory requirements, including the Hatch Act." 

O'Grady told me that he believes EPA chief Scott Pruitt is ultimately responsible for the tone of the tweets from the official account.

“I don't think anything is going to come out of the U.S. EPA social media accounts without his approval or without the approval of one of his cronies,” said O'Grady, who has been critical of Pruitt, now facing his own slew of ethical investigations for granting high raises to favored aides and renting an apartment from the family of an energy lobbyist.

Though nearly eight decades old, the Hatch Act has gained new relevance during Trump's presidency. The special counsel’s office has been policing the political speech of some members of Trump's White House. 

Under the law, officials may express their political views only as private citizens, but not in their role as representatives of the government. In March, the special counsel’s office announced that additional restrictions would now apply to federal workers because Trump is officially running for reelection.

Last year, the office determined that White House social-media director Dan Scavino Jr. violated the law when he urged Trump’s supporters on Twitter to defeat a GOP congressman, Justin Amash, in Michigan. And in March, Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, was found to have violated the law twice by making public comments when she spoke against Doug Jones, the Democrat running in the special Senate election in Alabama last year, and in favor of Roy Moore, his Republican opponent.

The EPA has used its megaphone similarly under Pruitt. The agency took a page from Trump's media playbook last year in response to Associated Press reporting on the flooding of toxic Superfund sites in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. The agency accused a D.C.-based journalist of "reporting from the comfort of Washington" even though other AP reporters co-wrote the stories from Houston. 

Among the possible reprimands for Hatch Act violators are a civil penalty of as much as $1,000, a reduction in grade or removal from office.

Scavino and Conway still have their jobs.

The Cybersecurity 202 is coming to your inboxes on May 9. Derek Hawkins will break down the latest news on election security, major hacks and what lawmakers are planning to do about it all in the newest member of our 202 franchise. Sign up here.

POWER PLAYS

— The past 24 hours have been busy on the Scott Pruitt ethics beat. Here's a rundown:

  • Pruitt’s controversial trip to Morocco last year was in part set up by longtime friend and lobbyist Richard Smotkin, who traveled with the administrator and served as an informal liaison during the visit, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis and Kevin Sullivan report. Smotkin, a former Comcast lobbyist who has known Pruitt for years, took on an unusual hands-on role in figuring out logistics for the December trip that cost more than $100,000. In April, the lobbyist won a $40,000-a-month contract with the Moroccan government to promote the kingdom. The EPA said Tuesday that the trip to Morocco was a legitimate effort to work on details of a trade agreement, and said Pruitt was unaware of the extent of Smotkin’s business relationship with the kingdom’s government.
  • Pruitt also "granted unusual access to a friend," Leonard Leo who heads the conservative group the Federalist Society, during Pruitt's other foreign trip last year to Italy, the New York Times reports. Leo traveled in Pruitt's motorcade "over the objections of Mr. Pruitt’s aides."
  • Two top Pruitt aides — Albert "Kell" Kelly, head of the agency’s Superfund program, and Pasquale "Nino" Perrotta, head of Pruitt’s personal security detail —  both resigned amid ongoing ethics questions. Kelly gave no reason for his departure. “Two individuals briefed on the decision, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel matter, said Kelly was tired of coming under criticism," The Post reports. Perrotta, meanwhile, is scheduled to appear before the House Oversight Committee and told ABC News he plans to “fully cooperate and answer any and all questions” from lawmakers. Politico reports Perrotta’s departure means the agency’s inspector general “who has been investigating the security spending, can no longer compel him to cooperate with the probe.”
  • Pruitt set up a legal defense fund as he faces nearly a dozen federal probes, the Times reports. The Times said four people familiar with Pruitt’s plans said they expect him to “operate the fund privately, with no E.P.A. affiliation.”
  • J. Steven Hart, the lobbyist whose wife rented the $50-a-night condo to Pruitt, asked the EPA administrator for help in getting three people appointed to the Science Advisory Board, the Times reports. Both Pruitt and Hart had once claimed that the lobbyist had no business before the EPA.
  • House Democrats say Pruitt's chief of staff asked the agency to look into opening a new EPA office in Tulsa, Pruitt's hometown, able to accommodate 24/7 security and a Secure Compartment Information Facility for communication, according to Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Tex.), Suzanne Bonamici (Ore.) and Donald Beyer (Va.). The three Democrats, all on the House Science Committee, asked Pruitt and the General Services Administration for records about the plans in letters Monday.

— Back to policy: Meanwhile, the EPA on Tuesday designated 51 areas in 22 states that are not complying with federal ozone requirements established in 2015, Reuters reports. In March, a federal court ordered the agency to implement the 2015 national air quality standards for ozone and identify any areas that were not compliant. “Following the data and the law, today’s designations reflect continued progress in addressing ground-level ozone and its precursors,” Pruitt said in a Tuesday statement.

— California vs. Trump administration: A coalition of 18 states led by California is suing the Trump administration over the decision to “reconsider” greenhouse-gas emission rules for vehicles, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports, setting up a major fight over climate change. Pruitt said last month he would revisit the Obama-era rules, charging that the standards are “based on outdated information.” In the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the states say the agency “arbitrarily and capriciously” changed course on the regulations. “This phalanx of states will defend the nation’s clean car standards to boost gas mileage and curb toxic air pollution,” California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said in a statement.

THERMOMETER

— “The gains are starting to slow down”: After five decades of improving air quality in the United States, the reduction in the air of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, two pollutants that contribute to smog, have slowed significantly, according to a new study in the the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Although our air is healthier than it used to be in the '80s and '90s, air quality in the U.S. is not progressing as quickly as we thought,” National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist and study co-author Helen Worden told USA Today. “The gains are starting to slow down.”

— And air pollution is killing millions: A new World Health Organization report has found toxic levels of air pollution kills about 7 million people each year. “Nine of 10 people around the world are exposed to dangerously high levels of pollutants that can lead to cancer and cardiovascular diseases, according to the study, which drew off the most-recent 2016 data,” per Bloomberg News.

— Fire season starts in the Southwest: The massive wildfire roaring through central Arizona marks the start of the region's wildfire season. The blaze has burned through 11,420 acres with 0 percent containment, according to CNN, which reports the fire was caused by an illegal campfire. "Jennifer Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, said the outlook for the Southwest in coming months would worsen as dry conditions persisted through the spring and summer,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

OIL CHECK

— Solar stall: Tesla is facing challenges related to its home solar-panel businesses, as slowing installations and guarantees made to investors may contribute to financial woes. “Tesla has little room for any problems at SolarCity,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The company’s debt swelled to $10 billion partly due to its SolarCity acquisition. It also had negative cash flow of about $1 billion on average each quarter last year, in part because of investing for the new Model 3 sedan. Tesla missed a crucial production goal for the mass-market car last quarter, adding pressure to crank out enough vehicles to generate cash this year.”

— West Virginia has reached a $2.65 million settlement with Volkswagen and two affiliates over the company’s diesel emissions-rigging scandal. “Volkswagen acknowledged it knowingly defeated the EPA’s testing routine for seven years before being caught by the International Council on Clean Transportation, which hired West Virginia University researchers to test a VW on real roads,” the Associated Press reports.

— BP’s shares hit an eight-year high on Tuesday, boosted by increasing oil prices, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Like other big oil firms that have reported recently, London-based BP benefited from recently lofty oil prices, but it also showed rising production,” per the report. “The outcome was its strongest quarterly earnings since mid-2014 — which could go some way toward convincing investors that BP’s ambitious plan to regain its position among the world’s top energy companies is gaining steam.”

— Meanwhile, oil prices reached a two-week low on Tuesday, per the Journal, weighed down by a rise in production of crude oil and an ongoing debate over the United State's pending decision on the Iran nuclear deal.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Milken Institute’s 2018 Global Conference continues.
  • Greentech Media’s Solar Summit continues
  • The Atlantic Council holds an event on Russia’s Energy Strategy.
  • The Great Plains Institute & Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions holds a workshop.

Coming Up

  • The Heritage Foundation holds an event on the Iran Nuclear Agreement on Thursday.
  • The Wilderness Society holds an event on climate change and U.S. Public Lands on Thursday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— “Project Trumpmore”: Finnish climate group Melting Ice wants a 115-foot ice sculpture of Trump’s face carved into a glacier to make a point about the warming globe. “We think that in its intangibility, global warming lacks a concrete symbol. One that would prove it exists, or not. That’s what we are setting out to do: a scientific art project,” the website reads.