Subpoena Sought Over Allegations EPA Mishandled Records Requests

(Bloomberg) -- The Environmental Protection Agency manipulated its handling of open records requests so that documents from the Obama years got priority over those involving the agency’s embattled former chief, Scott Pruitt, and other Trump administration officials, according to congressional interviews with EPA staffers.

The agency also allowed political appointees to review some planned responses to requests lodged under the Freedom of Information Act, according to interview excerpts cited by Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.

“EPA is using a process in which political appointees review FOIA requests and hand select requests to be processed by a different team if they are complex or ‘politically charged,’” Cummings said in a letter to Representative Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, who heads the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Responses to FOIAs are at times deliberately delayed, and political appointees review responses to FOIA requests before they are released.”

The Oversight Committee is looking into allegations of questionable spending and travel by Pruitt, who resigned last week after months of damaging revelations over his conduct in office.

Cummings, the panel’s top Democrat, wants Gowdy to issue a subpoena compelling the EPA to provide documents detailing the agency’s process for vetting and responding to open records requests. Recent congressional interviews with EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson and former Associate Administrator Samantha Dravis raise questions about how the agency is fielding those inquiries, Cummings suggested.

Jackson confirmed, according to Cummings, that the EPA is using a “first-in, first out” policy in which requests involving the current administration are delayed in order to respond to requests from previous administrations. The effect is to chip away at what Jackson described as a 10-year backlog of requests -- but at the cost of delaying responses to timely requests about the current EPA leadership and activities.

Barrage of Requests

Under the Freedom of Information Act, government agencies are responsible for providing requested public records, with some exceptions.

The EPA has been barraged with open-records requests since President Donald Trump entered the White House in January 2017, and amid intense and growing scrutiny of Pruitt. The Sierra Club went to court over the issue, accusing the EPA of failing to respond to its requests, with the litigation resulting in the agency releasing thousands of pages of records that helped shine a light on Pruitt’s activities at the EPA.

At times, the EPA Office of Public Affairs got involved in determining which FOIA requests would be processed, Cummings said. Those deemed “politically charged” may have gotten more scrutiny, EPA staff told investigators. 

Some of the practices may have predated Trump. More intensive review of FOIA requests began under former President Barack Obama, Jackson told investigators.

The Sierra Club’s request was identified as politically charged because it was relatively open-ended, Jackson told congressional investigators, according to Cummings’ letter.

“There was no reason for it. There was no topic,” he said. “It was just a fishing expedition.”

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