A government watchdog agency has agreed to a request from Democratic senators to open an inquiry into whether the Environmental Protection Agency circumvented the Trump administration’s own ethics rules when hiring certain agency employees.
In August, two lawmakers, Sens. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), asked the Government Accountability Office to launch the probe. Both Democrats serve on the Senate Environment Committee, which oversees the EPA.
GAO spokesman Chuck Young confirmed that the agency will launch the inquiry but said “work won’t start for a few months.”
He added, “The exact scope of what we will cover will not be determined until work gets underway.”
As a demonstration of his campaign commitment to “drain the swamp” in Washington, President Trump issued an executive order on employee ethics at the beginning of his administration in January. Under that order, executive-branch employees cannot “participate in any particular matter” on which they had lobbied in the two years before their appointment.
The senators alleged to the GAO that, among other issues, the EPA got around that order by hiring certain political appointees under a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act that authorizes the EPA to hire up to 30 people “without regard to civil service laws.”
The senators wrote that they are concerned that such “authorities are being abused,” noting that a “a number” of political appointees in supervisory positions had been hired this way.
“The whole point of ethics laws is to give the American people confidence that the work of their government is being conducted fairly, honestly, and free from special interest sway,” Carper and Whitehouse said in a statement. “But when an agency can just ignore those rules—and congressional oversight—the result often leads to corruption and scandal.”
The EPA defended the manner in which it has filled these positions as legal.
“The authority to hire under the Safe Drinking Water Act has existed since the 1970s,” EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman wrote in an email. “EPA’s hiring practices are consistent with those of previous Administrations. Everyone has received an ethics briefing, is aware of their responsibilities and is committed to serving professionally.”
The senators’ request to the GAO did not name specific employees they were concerned about. But in a May letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that went unanswered by the agency, Whitehouse noted that Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett, appointed to serve as deputy associate administrator of the EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations, had recently worked as a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which had lobbied the agency on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and other issues.
At the time, Whitehouse’s office wrote that it was “virtually impossible” for Bennett, given her past work, “to do her job and comply with the ethics pledge.”
Like Obama did when he entered office, Trump issued an ethics pledge for executive-branch hires ostensibly to shut the revolving door between industry and regulatory agencies, and fulfill a campaign promise.
But according to Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor and former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, the Trump administration has granted ethics waivers and utilized legal provisions, like that in the Safe Drinking Water Act, to ensure that some appointees avoid needing to take the pledge.
“Is it illegal? No, I don’t think that,” Painter said for the EPA’s actions spelled out in the two senators’ letter.
But, mentioning Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric, he added: “What they’re talking and what they’re doing are two different things.”