Democratic Lawmakers Seeking Fresh Corruption Probe at Beleaguered EPA

Democratic Lawmakers Seeking Fresh Corruption Probe at Beleaguered EPA

Image Credit: Coal-fired power plant, in Monroe, Mich. Source: Wikimedia


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Janet Ybarra
Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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Democrats in both the House and Senate are calling for a new investigation into alleged corruption at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has been caught in a cloud of misconduct going as far up as former administrator Scott Pruitt’s 14 or more federal investigations into potential wrongdoing, including his rental of a condo in Washington D.C. at a deeply discounted rate from a lobbyist whose clients were regulated by the EPA.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) have asked the acting inspector general of the EPA to investigate whether agency officials William Wehrum and David Harlow helped reverse the agency’s position in a major enforcement action to favor a client of their former law firm.

Wehrum and Harlow, assistant administrator and general counsel respectively for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, were lawyers at the law firm Hunton & Williams before arriving at the agency. The firm, and Harlow specifically, represented DTE Energy Company as DTE has been fighting the EPA for nearly a decade over air pollution from the company’s coal-fired power plant in Monroe, Mich., the Democrats seeking the probe say.

Ethics rules bar EPA officials from participating in matters involving former clients and clients of their firm, but it appears Wehrum and Harlow may have helped persuade the agency to abandon its position, according to the lawmakers seeking the investigation.

Their efforts came on the eve of consideration of the lawsuit involving DTE by the Supreme Court.

Under the Trump administration, the EPA has taken an extremely anti-regulatory and pro-business stance. The agency has been trying to escape the taint of multiple scandals and wrongdoing which prompted last year’s ouster of top official Pruitt.

“While the underlying facts and legal arguments in the DTE litigation are complicated, the ethics violations are simple and clear: federal employees may not participate in particular matters that involve their former clients or employers,” the lawmakers write in their letter to the acting inspector general. “[Wehrum and Harlow’s former law firm] Hunton & Williams has represented DTE in the DTE litigation since it started in 2010. Shortly after Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Harlow arrived at EPA, the agency abandoned its long-standing position and adopted the views of DTE on the legal issue central to the case, which was then pending before the United States Supreme Court.”

According to emails and other documents reviewed by the lawmakers, Wehrum and Harlow appear to have reviewed and participated in policy discussions relating to a memo changing the EPA’s position on enforcement actions like DTE’s. Reporting in the Washington Post Monday confirmed that Wehrum was actively involved in at least one internal meeting discussing the timing and substance of the memo.

“The memo was widely understood at EPA to about the DTE litigation, the memo itself discussed the litigation, and it was issued expressly to affect the Supreme Court’s decision on whether to grant a writ of certiorari,” the lawmakers add. “The DTE memo is plainly a substantial decision that had a direct and predictable effect on a particular matter involving a client represented by their former law firm.”

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