Energy

EPA Official Explains To Elijah Cummings That FOIA Policies He Called ‘Troubling’ Were Put In Place Under Obama

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Michael Bastasch Energy Editor

Environmental protection Agency (EPA) policies put in place that a top House Democrat railed against were actually put in place under the Obama administration, according to the agency’s top ethics official.

EPA attorney and designated ethics official Kevin Minoli told Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings the processes he called “particularly troubling” were first implemented under the Obama administration.

In a letter to Cummings, Minoli wrote that former Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe asked him to create the FEAT system in 2013 because the agency “was routinely the subject of litigation, public criticism, and Congressional oversight.”

FEAT was created “to provide strategic direction and project management assistance on the most challenging or complex [Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)] requests,” Minoli wrote to Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

A copy of Minoli’s letter to Cummings was obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Minoli sent his letter on Sunday in response to requests from Cummings about how the EPA has handled FOIA requests under former Administrator Scott Pruitt. Cummings sent a letter in June asking for documents, but said he only got a partial response.

Cummings wrote to House oversight committee chair South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy on Friday, asking him to subpoena EPA records in light of new evidence the agency had put in place a new process to stymie “politically charged” FOIA requests. (RELATED: GOP Lawmaker Is Pushing For A Carbon Tax On Refineries, Setting The Stage For A Fight With Steve Scalise)

“Responses to FOIAs are at times deliberately delayed, and political appointees review responses to FOIA requests before they are released,” Cummings wrote to Gowdy. “In at least one instance, EPA gave favorable treatment to an industry lobbyist.”

Cummings cited testimony from EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson and former policy adviser Samantha Dravis to argue Pruitt was trying to delay the release of potentially damaging records under FOIA.

Indeed, Politico reported in May that EPA political appointees were “screening public records requests related to the embattled administrator,” though the article did admit similar actions were taken under the Obama administration.

Minoli’s letter states policies for political appointees to be kept abreast of sensitive and complex FOIA requests began in 2013 under the FEAT system.

FEAT officials “helped keep senior leaders informed of new requests that the agency received each week, coordinated interagency review with the Executive Office of the President (EOP) where the EOP had equities in the responsive documents, and made senior leaders aware of impending FOIA productions,” he wrote.

FEAT initially involved D.C.-based experts traveling to regional EPA offices to help them go through FOIA requests.

FEAT experts handled controversial requests in the Obama years, including “requests related to Bristol Bay, Alaska … requests related to the spill of polluted water from Gold King Mine, EPA’s response to Volkswagen’s use of defeat devices, and drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan,” the letter stated.

EPA saw a massive influx of FOIA requests under Pruitt, not including a backlog of hundreds of unanswered requests from the previous administration. Many of those FOIAs were extremely broad, only adding to the time it takes to fulfill them.

The Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard noted in September several FOIAs wanted “all emails that include ‘climate change’ in them, a list in the millions and will be costly in money and hours to retrieve.”

What changed under President Donald Trump was a centralization of FOIA management in EPA’s Office of the Administrator, which saw a 415 percent increase in the number of FOIAs filed from 2016, Minoli told Cummings.

EPA’s Jackson asked FEAT officers to assist in 2017 with FOIA requests filed. Under Pruitt, the FOIA office also moved from the Office of Environmental Information to the Office of the General Counsel.

“The expectation was that by centralizing and prioritizing the responsibility for FOIA requests, the office would produce more timely responses with fewer errors that necessitated less resources,” Minoli wrote.

“EPA’s FOIA program is far from perfect. The number of requests that are pending for more than the statutory or agreed upon time for responding has increased,” Minoli wrote. “As a result, EPA now faces over 70 lawsuits under FOIA – a 500% increase over the pre-2017 high.”

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