The Environmental Protection Agency inspector general has been accused of covering up Obama administration “transparency abuses violating several federal laws” by conservatives in the wake of a report ostensibly absolving the agency any wrongdoing in handling government records requests.
A recent EPA IG report claimed there was “no indications of bias” in the agency’s Freedom of Information Act to grant or deny fee waiver requests to conservative groups. The investigation was launched by the EPA after conservative groups and several states accused the agency of stonewalling FOIA fee waiver requests to prevent politically unfavorable information from becoming public.
But the conservative watchdog group Energy & Environment Legal Institute (EELI) said that the EPA IG report was designed to avoid examining the actual evidence of EPA wrongdoing.
“In short, after EPA’s bias was exposed and subjected to scrutiny, the Agency tread water until the threat passed; then it came back against these groups more aggressively than ever,” EELI wrote in a report rebutting the EPA IG’s findings. “Then, OIG designed its inquiry in a way that ensures the threat had passed, leaving it once again covering for EPA transparency abuses violating several federal laws.”
EELI counsel Chris Horner, one of the report’s authors, was the first to bring to light the EPA’s FOIA fee waiver abuses. Last year, Horner presented evidence the EPA was making it harder for conservative groups to obtain government records while making it easy for environmental groups — that generally supported the agency’s agenda — to obtain government information.
Horner obtained EPA records showing the agency had rejected or ignored 21 out of 26 fee waiver requests from conservative groups throughout 2012 and part of 2013 — an 81 percent rejection rate. All while granting fee waiver requests for 75 out of 82 requests from environmental groups — a 92 percent success rate.
It wasn’t long after that the EPA was sued by 12 Republican-led states for stonewalling their FOIA requests regarding the agency’s “sue and settle” agreements with environmental groups. The lawsuit was led by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt who was joined by attorney generals from Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
The accusations of EPA transparency bias caught the attention of Republicans on Capitol Hill, who launched inquiries into the matter. Compounding matters for the EPA, the FOIA scandal broke around the same time as the news that the IRS was targeting conservative nonprofits, allowing critics to tie the two events together.
“We know the Obama EPA has completely mismanaged FOIA, but granting fee waivers for their friends in the far-left environmental community, while simultaneously blocking conservative leaning groups from gaining access to information is really no different than the IRS disaster,” said Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter last year.
In response to all the criticism, the EPA launched an internal investigation regarding accusations of FOIA bias, resulting in the latest IG report claiming there was “no indications of bias in the fee waiver decisions we reviewed.”
But Horner and EELI contend the IG’s investigation was designed to ignore actual instances of FOIA fee waiver abuse by narrowing the scope of the investigation to only include organizations that have never complained of FOIA abuses.
“Unfortunately, this Inspector General has once again tailored his investigation to avoid properly inquiring into evidence of abusive Agency practices,” Horner said in a statement. “Its claim to ‘randomly’ including [the Competitive Enterprise Institute], and with equal randomness, excluding E&E Legal from an inquiry into allegations triggered by revelations of its treatment of both groups strains credulity.”
Horner added that the EPA has acknowledged to him three times in writing that the agency sets aside FOIA fee waiver requests from him and any group the EPA associates with him for “separate handling” — which Horner says is on its face biased behavior.
“Further, random examination, and instead examining into EPA treatment of others whose experience does not indicate they were similarly targeted, only makes sense if OIG is trying to change the subject and as it did once before simply to avoid the more troubling questions,” Horner said.
The EPA, however, stands by the IG’s findings of no bias in its FOIA handling.
“The report looked at over 1,000 denials over a three year period and found no bias,” agency spokeswoman Liz Purchia told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The conclusion stands on its own.”
While the IG’s report did not find any wrongdoing by the agency, it did find that “the EPA could better clarify what requesters must demonstrate under each factor” to get the fees for putting together their FOIA requests waived “as requester interviewees expressed confusion on the distinctions among the six factors and what information they should provide for the EPA to evaluate each factor.”
The IG report also said the EPA “took an extra step not required by FOIA or the EPA’s regulations to request additional justification from requesters.” This means the agency required more of FOIA requesters than was required by law, though it’s not mentioned if this was applied to all requesters across the board.
“Clarifying both what requesters must demonstrate for the six review factors and the EPA’s approach on when to request additional justification could strengthen the consistency of the EPA’s process and lessen any potential perception of differential treatment of FOIA requesters in the future,” the report added.
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