EPA’s internal watchdog did not review allegations against Scott Pruitt for failing to keep track of records or properly respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.
In a report released this morning, EPA’s Office of Inspector General said it didn’t investigate those specific charges, including some made by lawmakers, because the former EPA administrator resigned during the beginning of its review.
"Since Mr. Pruitt left the agency during the preliminary stages of this audit, we did not review specific allegations made against him," said the report.
One of the lawmakers who requested the report was displeased with that move by the inspector general.
"It’s deeply disappointing to learn that the EPA Inspector General never even looked into what appeared to be flagrant violations of public records laws by Mr. Pruitt," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in a statement shared with E&E News.
"That sends a message to other public servants that, as long as you resign at the right time, you can completely escape accountability," Merkley said. "No one should be above accountability for breaking the public trust."
EPA OIG spokesman Jeff Lagda said that the watchdog office has no comment beyond what is stated in the report.
The EPA watchdog noted that its prior audits had found "weaknesses" in EPA’s management of records and preserving electronic records.
The inspector general said it conducted the audit partly in response to a congressional inquiry. In addition, after that inquiry, the IG office also received a hotline complaint regarding the agency’s compliance with FOIA and federal records law. Both the inquiry and complaint made allegations against the administrator’s office and Pruitt in particular, according to the report.
The congressional inquiry that helped partially to trigger the audit was an April 10, 2018, letter by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Merkley to the inspector general, EPA OIG spokeswoman Jennifer Kaplan confirmed to E&E News.
"This audit was conducted, in part, to address that congressional inquiry (which I’ll acknowledge since the senators made public their letter of request), as well as in response to a hotline complaint received after the congressional request," Kaplan said in an email, adding that the watchdog office received "a second pertinent congressional request" after starting the audit.
The senators in their letter said they had concerns that not all of Pruitt’s multiple email accounts were being searched in response to FOIA requests. Pruitt had four email accounts, but EPA said at the time that those accounts were searched in response to public records and congressional requests.
EPA also conducted its own internal review of electronic searches of Pruitt’s official email for FOIA requests. The agency did not find "any responsive documents that were not included in the FOIA responses issued by" EPA, according to a July 31, 2018, letter sent to Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), obtained by E&E News under FOIA.
Like Merkley, Carper was disappointed in the IG office not reviewing record-keeping allegations against the former EPA administrator.
A Carper aide told E&E News that the senator believes EPA’s inspector general failing to open or continue investigations on Pruitt "sends the wrong message about consequences for potential ethical violations."
New FOIA policy coming
The inspector general conducted its audit of EPA’s FOIA process and preservation of emails and text messages from June 2018 until June 2019. It followed up on three prior reports by the IG on public records, examining whether the agency completed 13 recommendations in total from those audits.
The EPA watchdog found that the agency had resolved all of those recommendations, including keeping track of text messages, managing the use of private email accounts for government business, and providing records on management training.
Yet after the IG issued its draft report, EPA published new FOIA regulations in June to conform with amendments made to the public records law in 2007, 2009 and 2016. Those rules have come under intense scrutiny and are now subject to litigation from environmental groups as well as legislation from Democratic and Republican senators (Greenwire, July 24).
Consequently, the IG office recommended in this report that EPA issue an updated FOIA policy and procedure.
"Keeping policies and procedures current is a major component of an effective internal control program. As such, the EPA’s ability to respond correctly to FOIA requests could be hampered by not updating the associated policy and procedure for compliance with the FOIA statute amended in 2016," said the report.
EPA agreed with the recommendation and expects to issue an updated policy on FOIA by December, according to the report.
Since the agency has now issued its FOIA regulations, "It has now become timely for EPA to review EPA’s FOIA Policy and FOIA Procedures, which it is now undertaking," said Elise Packard, deputy general counsel for operations, in response to the report.
Pruitt audits come to an end
With the release of today’s report, EPA’s Office of Inspector General has wrapped up its publicly known work tied to President Trump’s first EPA administrator.
Reports by the IG rebuked Pruitt for his exorbitant expenses, such as his around-the-clock security detail and first-class travel. In other reviews, the inspector general documented how the use of a special hiring authority swelled during Pruitt’s tenure, or problems with overtime pay for criminal investigators.
But other EPA OIG investigations involving Pruitt ran into dead ends.
Records obtained by E&E News under FOIA show agents for the inspector general didn’t find solid evidence that Pruitt had pressured members of the National Mining Association to weigh in against the Paris Agreement.
Cases probing Pruitt’s lease of a Capitol Hill condo tied to a lobbyist with business before EPA and him having EPA subordinates do personal tasks for the then-administrator — like trying to help secure a Chick-fil-A fast-food franchise for his wife — were rendered "inconclusive" because investigators never interviewed Pruitt before his resignation, according to an IG semiannual report last year.
Pruitt left EPA in July last year under a crush of ethics allegations. His then-deputy, Andrew Wheeler, took charge of the agency as acting administrator and was confirmed by the Senate this February to lead EPA.
Now, the EPA inspector general’s report on FOIA and the preservation of records is its last related to Pruitt’s time at the agency, according to a spokeswoman for the watchdog office.
"This audit report concludes the EPA OIG’s last publicly announced review related to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s tenure at EPA," Kaplan said.