Second in a series. Click here to read about Andrew Wheeler’s early days at EPA.
In fall 2006, Senate Democrats clinched the majority for the first time since 2003 in a nail-biter midterm election, forcing Republican committee chairmen to relinquish their gavels and their roomier, swankier Capitol Hill offices — a perk for the party in charge.
Ousted Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) handed his gavel and title to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), but it took months for his staff to exit from the committee’s majority offices.
Former committee aides blame Inhofe’s then-staff director, Andrew Wheeler, for refusing to budge.
"When the Senate flipped, Andrew took the position that those were not majority and minority offices, they were Republican and Democratic offices," said Ken Kopocis, who was then the committee’s Democratic deputy staff director.
"Everybody was annoyed," he said. "We were convinced correctly that we were right. … Eventually he relented because he just didn’t have a leg to stand on."
Wheeler, who took over as acting EPA administrator last month, has been trying to burnish his reputation as a peacemaker at the agency in the wake of Administrator Scott Pruitt resigning after a flurry of ethics scandals.
But as a Senate staffer, he was involved in dust-ups over climate change and clean air bills and partisan squabbles over access to committee rooms and better offices, his former colleagues say.
To be sure, some Republicans offer a different version of events, arguing Wheeler wasn’t the instigator in the conflicts. Yet his friends and foes alike agree he was often at the center of the partisan brawls on one of the Senate’s most politically charged committees.
"He was very content being partisan," Kopocis said. "He would reach out and work with the Democrats when it suited the goals that he was trying to get," he added. But "Andrew was comfortable playing hardball."
Kopocis and other former staffers recall that Democratic aides worked out of the offices down the hall on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building for months as Wheeler put up a fight to remain in the larger suite connected to the committee’s hearing room. While Democrats were assuming they’d earned the spoils of the election, Wheeler pushed back well into 2007, the staffers said. And correspondence from May 2007 shows Boxer was still receiving mail at the minority office space at 456 Dirksen.
"He refused to leave," another former committee staffer said. Wheeler said, "’I’m not going to move, I’m going to keep the majority space.’ … Finally we had a meeting and Boxer said, ‘Andy, you have to leave now,’" the former staffer said. "He finally left in May."
A third former staffer also recalled that Wheeler fought to keep the larger offices for months.
Ryan Jackson, who was another Inhofe aide at the time and is now Wheeler’s chief of staff at EPA, told E&E News this week that Wheeler in fact offered to move staff and files to make the process easier.
"At no point would Andrew or did Andrew refuse to move," Jackson said. He added that it takes a while for moving crews to get around and that Wheeler "offered to move bodies and boxes" in the meantime. But Jackson doesn’t recall a fight. "That’s petty, and Andrew doesn’t do petty."
Inhofe told E&E News in a recent interview that he didn’t remember the incident. "I never went over there," he said of the Dirksen office space. "I don’t know about that."
Matt Dempsey, who was Inhofe’s EPW Committee press secretary at the time, also said he didn’t recall Wheeler dragging his heels on switching offices. "That sounds ridiculous," he said. "I can’t imagine Andrew being part of that conversation."
Real estate on Capitol Hill is a hot commodity, said Don Ritchie, the longtime Senate historian before he retired in 2015.
When Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords flipped from Republican to independent caucusing with Democrats in 2001, control of the chamber changed hands. "People were in tears" over having to vacate their majority offices, Ritchie recalled.
The clash over office space wasn’t the only time Wheeler found himself at the center of a conflict.
In July 2008, Boxer was seeking a subpoena to obtain an early version of EPA’s endangerment finding from the George W. Bush administration. The finding — ultimately finalized under the Obama administration — triggered greenhouse gas regulations under the Clean Air Act.
Wheeler convened reporters in a closed-door Republican press conference in the EPW Committee hearing room to argue that the EPA document shouldn’t be released, arguing that the agency had a right to keep it private.
During the press conference, Boxer’s staff director, Bettina Poirier, walked in. She said she was taking the fastest route to a different room. She stopped to tell reporters her perspective on the status of the document review, and Wheeler asked her to leave. Republican staffers then stood guard at the door for the rest of their press conference, E&E News reported at the time (E&E Daily, July 24, 2008).
Jackson said of that incident that Poirier "crashed" the GOP news conference before Wheeler asked her to leave. Boxer could have held her own press conference had she wanted to, he said.
Wheeler’s critics are also quick to note his role in a 2005 controversy when then-EPW Chairman Inhofe was accused of intimidating critics of a major Republican clean air bill.
State air regulators — then known as the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators/Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officers (STAPPA/ALAPCO) — criticized the Clear Skies bill, which Inhofe was co-sponsoring. After the hearing, Inhofe requested years of the group’s tax records, a move that the air group and its allies viewed as unprecedented.
"It was a bullyish tactic aimed at trying to intimidate our association," said Bill Becker, who was executive director of STAPPA/ALAPCO, which later changed its name to the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.
"It came from Andy Wheeler," Becker, now retired, said by phone last week.
Becker was so upset by the tactic that he told news outlets about it, generating some negative press for Inhofe at the time. Becker heard later that Wheeler "was actually upset by all of the publicity."
Wheeler disputed claims at the time that Inhofe’s staff was retaliating against the group for testifying against the bill. The requests for tax returns were part of a separate investigation into an EPA grant program, he said.
In hindsight, Wheeler told E&E News that year, it was a mistake for Inhofe to include requests for information on both the bill and the EPA grants in the same letter. "There’s no retaliation from their testimony," he said (Greenwire, Feb. 24, 2005).
‘Bar stool guy’
Wheeler wasn’t always at war with Democrats. Some even regularly attended parties at his house.
"Generally speaking, I had a pretty good working relationship with Andy," said Chris Miller, who worked across the aisle from Wheeler as an aide to Jeffords, who was EPW chairman from 2001 until 2003.
"We probably didn’t agree on any policy items that I can remember off the top of my head," Miller said. That made for some fights, Miller said, but "we were collegial. I think he’s a good person."
Miller was among those who went to Wheeler’s famed parties, where Republicans and Democrats could mingle after hours. "He wasn’t carrying through the work thing into his private life," Miller said.
Wheeler’s most popular gathering was an annual fall get-together based on Tim Burton’s 1993 classic, "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Former guests and friends recall a festive affair with Christmas cookies and Halloween treats, a Christmas tree with Halloween-themed decorations, and the animated film playing in the background.
Dempsey said his children loved the parties, attended by Senate staffers and some of Wheeler’s former EPA co-workers. Mike McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist and strategist who’s known Wheeler for years, recalled up to 100 people at one party.
"It was as bipartisan a crowd as I’ve come across in Washington," said McKenna.
"[The parties] were so Andrew," said longtime friend Doug Benevento, who now serves as EPA’s Region 8 administrator. "They were clever, they were smart parties. It was billed as the latest Halloween party you’ll go to and the earliest Christmas party."
They first met in the late 1990s, when Benevento was working for then-Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and Wheeler was doing his first stint in Inhofe’s office.
Benevento recalled calling up members of the various Senate committees when his former boss moved from the House to the upper chamber. Benevento became fast friends with Wheeler, who would later be a groomsman in his wedding in 2000.
Benevento described Wheeler, who stopped hosting the parties more than a decade ago, as pleasant, approachable and grounded.
"He’s a guy who’s a steady hand, he’s a good guy," he said. "He’s what I call a bar stool guy. He’s a guy you can sit in a bar with and have a few beers, anybody could, and you’d find him to be a pleasant and just fun, and he’s the right guy at the right time to lead the agency."
Even some Democrats who have sparred with Wheeler on policy were happy to see him take over for Pruitt.
"I was thrilled that Pruitt is gone because he was damaging the agency, the morale of the entire mission and function of the agency," said Miller. Wheeler is "not going to try to tear the place apart."
However, Miller said, "I also am a little worried that given this White House that he may not get a lot of room to follow that more moderate, non-Pruitt path."