US

Feds Obstruct Media Probe By Blocking Interviews With Key Officials

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) public relations official is blocking interviews sought by The Daily Caller News Foundation with employees believed to have vital information about the federal government’s $1 billion Superfund program.

Agency spokeswoman Mollie Lemon acknowledged a May 16 DCNF request to interview an EPA contracting official, but the interview never happened, despite repeated requests during the ensuing four-week email exchange.

Lemon stopped acknowledging the requests two days after the original DCNF email, thus effectively denying it by default.

TheDCNF is seeking information on how EPA tracks numerous aspects concerning contracts for the EPA’s Superfund program – an extremely complex operation that typically is only understood by officials working within the contracting office.

Tracking Superfund contracts is especially important on public health and environmental issues as they can provide a window into how the EPA spends billions of dollars from the program’s thousands of slush funds. The EPA has previously awarded top-dollar contracts without competition, The Center for Public Integrity reported in 2007.

Lemon did provide a small portion of the information sought by TheDCNF, but there were multiple gaps that required additional consultations with the contracting office. Those gaps were never filled.

Then, EPA invoked the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gives agency officials an additional 20 days before they must respond.

“After consulting further with our program staff in the Office of Administration and Resources Management on your inquiry, we’ve determined that your request would best be answered via a FOIA request,” Lemon said in a June 15 email to TheDCNF – 30 days after the initial interview request. Lemon failed to respond to multiple emails from TheDCNF during the wait.

“The EPA checkbook is one of the most important records,” Open The Books founder Adam Andrzejewski told TheDCNF. “It’s our money, and taxpayers should not need a search warrant to clarify exactly where the EPA spent Superfund dollars.”

Andrzejewski’s non-profit government watchdog has shared extensive EPA spending data with TheDCNF, including some concerning the Superfund program.

“Why is ‘protecting the environment’ such a secretive mission at EPA?” Andrzejewski continued. “After their mistakes at Gold King Mine in Colorado and Flint, MI, journalists, citizens, watchdogs and politicians need to give the EPA ever-increasing scrutiny. It doesn’t bode well when the EPA is again hiding the ball from legitimate oversight.”

An interview with an EPA contracting official was necessary to confirm TheDCNF’s finding that it’s impossible to track Superfund contracts. Conversely, the official could explain how to track that data if TheDCNF’s determination was wrong.

It’s also possible the EPA uses a different database than the one Andrzejewski provided to track Superfund grants. A phone call with an EPA contracting official, however, could have shown that within minutes, rather than taking a full month.

The EPA has a history of obstructing investigations and stonewalling FOIA requests, especially those from conservative groups.

The EPA was releasing documents for a Competitive Enterprise Institute FOIA request so slowly, for example, that it would take 100 years before all the responsive records would be released. The conservative group previously found the EPA would typically grant FOIA fee waivers for environmental groups, but would reject most fee waivers from conservative groups.

Also, the EPA has already delayed several DCNF FOIA requests, while others’ deadlines have been ignored. The agency did return one DCNF request regarding the EPA’s Superfund slush funds, but left out crucial spending details without explanation.

The EPA inserted itself into what was promised to be an “independent” review of the agency-caused Gold King Mine spill, TheDCNF previously reported, and later impeded an inspector general investigation into the disaster, according to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

TheDCNF and others have reported extensively on the Obama administration’s obstruction of FOIA law. The administration lobbied hard against FOIA reform, Vice News reported.

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