Incoming EPA chief of staff draws fire

By Corbin Hiar | 03/11/2020 01:41 PM EDT

Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) during a hearing this morning.

Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) during a hearing this morning. Francis Chung/E&E News

Trump EPA veteran Mandy Gunasekara doesn’t return to the agency until next week, but Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s incoming chief of staff is already drawing fire on Capitol Hill.

Democratic senators this morning raised concerns about her inflammatory, partisan tweets and the ethical implications posed by the unknown funders of the pro-Trump advocacy work Gunasekara has been doing since leaving the administration last February.

"Mr. Wheeler has just hired a new chief of staff whose tweets proclaim that she believes that the so-called looney left wants to, quote, ‘implement a Soviet-styled takeover of our energy and our economy’ and that, quote, ‘Democrat actions are corroding democracy,’" Delaware Sen. Tom Carper said at an Environment and Public Works Committee confirmation hearing today for three other nominees.

Mandy Gunasekara tweet. Photo credit: @MississippiMG/Twitter
| @MississippiMG/Twitter

Carper, the committee’s ranking member, cited tweets Gunasekara sent regarding the Green New Deal climate change mitigation plan and comments House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made regarding the impeachment of President Trump. The Green New Deal tweet included a black-and-white image of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin standing beside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

"With the death of our late colleague John McCain, I am the last Vietnam veteran serving in the U.S. Senate," Carper said, referring to the former Arizona Republican.

"I served five years and three tours during a hot war in Southeast Asia to oppose the expansion of communism," Carper said. "These comments conflating climate action with communism aren’t just intellectually dishonest. They are reprehensible, especially when you consider the military service record of our commander in chief during that same war."

During the Vietnam War, Trump received military draft deferments four times while he was in college and once after he graduated for bone spurs in his feet.

Meanwhile, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) raised questions about whether EPA’s ethics process could prevent Gunasekara from doing favors for the undisclosed people and companies that have bankrolled the Energy 45 Fund she leads and the Texas Public Policy Foundation and CO2 Coalition, fossil fuel-friendly groups with which she’s affiliated.

"Every employee at the EPA has an obligation of impartiality. And it means that if you are making decisions that relate to people or interests or companies with whom you have a relationship, that relationship needs to be disclosed, and you need to take appropriate steps to make sure there’s no conflict of interest," Whitehouse said to Doug Benevento, Trump’s pick for deputy EPA administrator.

Mandy Gunasekara tweet. Photo credit: @MississippiMG/Twitter
| @MississippiMG/Twitter

"How are you possibly gonna know that she is in compliance with that rule if you don’t know who was funding her through this period?" he asked.

"Our expectation is that all employees consult with the career ethics counsel and receive guidance from them on what they can be involved in," Benevento responded.

But that didn’t satisfy Whitehouse, a critic of recent Supreme Court and Federal Election Commission decisions that have overturned some restrictions on money in politics and disclosure requirements.

"Well, here’s the problem: You haven’t updated your ethics rules. You don’t even ask about dark money conflicts of interest; you’re still using ethics rules that predate the explosion of dark money that has corrupted our politics," he said. "When you say go to the ethics people, you’re going into a fixed game, because they don’t ask that question, either."

Whitehouse then pressed Benevento again on how he could ensure that Gunasekara doesn’t violate impartiality standards. The deputy nominee once more put that responsibility on ethics officials.

Until EPA leaders and ethics lawyers ask Gunasekara and other nominees the right questions, Whitehouse said, ethics violations will be "a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Gunasekara didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the senators’ concerns. But EPA spokesperson Molly Block said in a statement, "All EPA appointees work closely with our career ethics officials and work diligently to ensure they follow all ethics guidelines and laws."