Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland (left) resigned from the Environmental Protection Agency, saying that “the administration is seriously weakening EPA’s mission.” On his last day as an EPA employee, Michael Cox (right) sent a tough letter to then-Administrator Scott Pruitt about administration policies. (Family photos)
Columnist

When you have a liar in the White House, it should be no surprise when mendacity afflicts the agencies.

The current case involves an effort by the Environmental Protection Agency to denigrate retirees who spent decades serving taxpayers.

Documents obtained through a lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility demonstrate how the EPA sought to counter unfavorable stories by going after retirees with false information. That effort involved the White House, Republican National Committee and conservative media.

Calling the EPA’s Office of Public Affairs “a nasty fake news factory,” PEER said the agency worked to “discredit employees who sounded the alarm as they left the agency” in 2017. PEER general counsel Paula Dinerstein said the documents obtained through a lawsuit against the EPA “detail distasteful disinformation campaigns directed against distinguished public servants.”

Speaking of disinformation, it flows from President Trump at an amazing and dangerous clip. He made 3,251 false or misleading claims in the first 497 days of his presidency, according to The Washington Post Fact Checker. That’s 6.5 a day — quite an example for his staff.

The retirees are Michael “Mike” Cox, who resigned after 25 years, and Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, a retired 30-year member of the federal Senior Executive Service (SES).

First, a little background.

On April 7, 2017, I wrote a column about Cox with the headline “EPA staffer leaves with a bang, blasting agency policies under Trump.”

In a letter to Scott Pruitt, the administrator who recently resigned in a thundercloud of corruption controversies, Cox said “I, along with many EPA staff, are becoming increasing[ly] alarmed about the direction of EPA under your leadership … The policies this Administration is advancing are contrary to what the majority of the American people, who pay our salaries, want EPA to accomplish, which are to ensure the air their children breath is safe; the land they live, play, and hunt on to be free of toxic chemicals; and the water they drink, the lakes they swim in, and the rivers they fish in to be clean.”

Four months later, we published a Federal Insider column about Southerland with the headline “EPA won’t be able to do the ‘right thing’ under Trump, says latest protesting official.” In it, she said that “the administration is seriously weakening EPA’s mission by vigorously pursuing an industry deregulation approach and defunding implementation of environmental programs.”

In October, Jahan Wilcox, a former EPA spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times that “despite the faux outrage, both employees will receive their six-figure taxpayer-funded pension and we wish them the best.”

The outrage is real. The six-figure pensions are not.

“My federal pension under FERS (Federal Employees Retirement System) is about $60,000 before taxes, health care, etc. are deducted …” Southerland said by email. “It works out to about 1/3 of the average of the last 3 years of base salary without any inclusion of awards.”

John Konkus, an EPA spokesman, would not say why the agency peddled bad information, insisting that “We are focused on carrying out the President’s positive environmental agenda.” Wilcox did not respond to a request for comment.

Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, did.

“EPA’s gross miscalculation of the retirement benefits of Dr. Southerland makes one wonder if this is yet another attack on career SES and an attempt to influence public perceptions about federal workers as being overpaid and pampered. Calculating retirement benefits is a straightforward, easily understood formula that all agency human resource offices can do accurately within minutes.”

After the Times article appeared, Cox sent an email to Wilcox that said six figures is correct only “if you count the numbers after the decimal point.” Cox said his gross yearly federal retirement benefit is $48,991.68. His net, minus his cost for health insurance and federal income tax, is $39,163.20.

Federal Insider reporting on Southerland pushed the EPA’s smearing effort into action.

A Wilcox email on July 31, the day before the Southerland column posted, informed the White House about “my pitch,” apparently to sympathetic outlets. The email said “the same Washington Post reporter who wrote about Mike Cox is writing about this. My guess is that once WaPo writes about Elizabeth Southland, the story will get legs so we wanted to get in front of it all instead of having another controversy like the Mike Cox stuff.”

His pitch misleadingly said that “last year Elizabeth Southerland made $249,000. For comparison, a Senator or Congressman’s salary is $174,000 and the average American makes $44,000 according the Census Bureau.” The $249,000 is misleading because it included a one-time monetary prize that comes with the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, an honor bestowed on less than 1 percent of federal senior executives. The prize is 30 percent of the recipient’s salary.

“Curious if you would be interested in writing about this,” the Wilcox email said, “because the left and environmentalists will make a big deal out of nothing.”

That same day, the documents indicate the Republican National Committee “war room” circulated an article on the conservative “Hot Air” blog that reflected points in the Wilcox pitch. The author, identified as Jazz Shaw, wrote that he’s waiting to see if Southerland “turns down all those sweet taxpayer funded retirement benefits.”

Dinerstein thinks “Wilcox was trying to discredit Betsy so no one would listen to her criticisms of EPA under Trump/Pruitt.”

But it is the Trump administration that has discredited itself by the president’s proclivity for prevarication.

Wilcox’s best wishes to the retirees did not impress Cox.

“This seems so disingenuous and insincere …” his email to Wilcox said, “when you just called us liars and greedy.”

Read more:

[EPA staffer leaves with a bang, blasting agency policies under Trump]

[EPA won’t be able to do the ‘right thing’ under Trump, says latest protesting official]

[In 497 days, President Trump has made 3,251 false or misleading claims]