EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler spent four times as many days this year visiting 13 swing states as he did the rest of the country.
The EPA chief’s calendar and press releases showed that as of yesterday, Wheeler had spent 40 days in 2020 on trips to Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
That compares with only 10 days visiting a few of the other 37 states — excluding an EPA staff retreat in Virginia and Wheeler’s appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Maryland.
The discrepancy is striking, and it raises questions about whether Wheeler is using his position and EPA resources to sway voters in states that likely will decide next week’s presidential election.
With the exception of a swing through rural Virginia, a tour of brownfield sites in Missouri, and a California trip where he met with U.S. Border Patrol and to discuss sewage spills in the Tijuana River, all of Wheeler’s travel over the last three months has been to states President Trump narrowly won in 2016 and hopes to win again.
Most were for standard ribbon-cutting appearances. One involved EPA water safety grants in Waukesha, Wis. Another had to do with a state revolving loan fund for water infrastructure in East Lansing, Mich. At these appearances, Wheeler often was flanked by lawmakers, including more Republicans than Democrats.
But some of the trips were more unusual.
In one of his three trips to Florida this year — a state where Trump hopes to shore up the Hispanic vote — Wheeler led a naturalization ceremony for new citizens. He then met with the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Doral, Fla., to discuss what EPA was doing to help Puerto Rico recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Wheeler started that trip on Oct. 19, a month after Trump announced he’d release nearly $13 billion in aid to Puerto Rico. Congress had appropriated the money two years earlier, but the administration had not disbursed it until recently. Critics said the move was a bid to persuade Puerto Rican residents living in Florida to support Trump’s reelection bid.
In a statement, Wheeler called the South Florida trip "one of the most rewarding periods of my time running this agency."
But experts with government watchdog groups pointed out that naturalization ceremonies aren’t typical duties for EPA chiefs.
"The head of an agency, their time is extraordinarily precious and limited and finite," noted Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator at the Project on Government Oversight. "So how they decide to spend their time says a lot about their priorities. And the fact that he is going to swing states or places where there are hotly contested elections — I think that is a strong indicator that there could be political intent motivating these trips."
The Hatch Act of 1939 is designed to keep federal employees from using government time and resources to engage in electoral politics. For Senate-confirmed political appointees such as Wheeler, that would mean using government-financed travel to bolster the campaigns of Trump or other political allies — including vulnerable GOP state lawmakers or members of Congress.
The Trump administration has made liberal use of government resources in service of the president’s political ambitions. Last summer, the president turned the White House lawn into a setting for the Republican National Convention — a campaign event. In total, 14 senior White House or administration political officials have been found in violation of the Hatch Act during Trump’s first term in office, compared with two in the eight years of the Obama administration, according to the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
But enforcement of the Hatch Act is tricky. The Office of Special Counsel is tasked with investigating possible violations, but experts say it generally doesn’t issue citations unless they involve blatant politicking or statements of intent.
For example, earlier this month, OSC cited Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for using a joint appearance with Trump in North Carolina this summer to urge farmers to vote for the president. Perdue is required to reimburse USDA for his travel (Greenwire, Oct. 9).
He faces further action if he does it again — though that likely would mean a recommendation to the president that he dismiss Perdue, which Trump could ignore.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo currently is being investigated for his Aug. 25 RNC speech, which was made during a taxpayer-financed trip to Israel, House committee leaders revealed earlier this month.
And an OSC investigation has been in progress since 2018, when White House staff told reporters on a phone call that Cabinet members including Wheeler, who was then acting EPA administrator, were participating in more than 35 events in congressional districts in support of GOP congressional candidates in the midterms.
No official has been found in violation of the Hatch Act purely because of their travel in an election year. But officials are supposed to reimburse the U.S. Treasury for mixed travel — trips that are both official and political. Schwellenbach pointed to guidelines OSC issued in 2011 for determining whether travel is mixed, and thus requiring a partial reimbursement.
The criteria was drawn up after OSC determined — five years afterward — that President George W. Bush’s White House under adviser Karl Rove improperly used government funds to support campaign-related activities during the 2006 midterm election.
The guidance directs OSC staff to consider whether political candidates or incumbents seeking reelection are present at events the government official attends, and if so, whether the official was invited by the candidate’s campaign as opposed to his or her congressional office.
"If, for example, the request came from a campaign manager or the event is being organized by a party organization, then the event is likely to be political," it states.
OSC investigators also are directed to "consider the frequency of similar types of events during non-election years and whether agency officials participated in such events in those years."
The lawmakers Wheeler has met with on his travels this year are more frequently Republican, though he has met with Democrats, too. EPA spokesman James Hewitt said none of Wheeler’s trips came at the invitation of or in coordination with political campaigns. And the administrator did not attend political events while on official trips, he said. EPA paid for Wheeler to attend Trump’s event touting his environmental accomplishments in Florida in September.
"We of course keep the White House apprised of our travels," Hewitt said.
A look at Wheeler’s calendar for 2019 shows his travel patterns have changed. Not surprisingly, he attended more conferences and international conventions last year — including one with other Group of Seven environment ministers in Metz, France — before the coronavirus pandemic brought such gatherings to a halt. But he also took stand-alone trips in 2019 to non-swing states such as North Dakota, Indiana, Alaska and New York. Notably, he traveled less often last fall than autumn of this year.
"Obviously, lots of administrations make strategic decisions about travel and sort of scarce resources like time and travel in or around elections. And lots of administrations tout their accomplishments as they get closer and closer to Election Day," said Donald Sherman, deputy director of CREW.
"What’s different here is that it seems like throughout the administration, agency heads are using their authority to explicitly and implicitly campaign for the president in ways that we haven’t seen before," he said.
CREW, which requested that OSC review the travel by Trump administration officials including Wheeler during the midterms two years ago, would like to see Congress strengthen the Hatch Act to give OSC more authority to initiate investigations before it receives an outside complaint.
It says OSC already has more authority than it is using to discipline political appointees that have not been confirmed by the Senate for Hatch Act violations — including those who work at the White House.
And Sherman said congressional appropriations committees should follow up with agencies to ensure that when OSC requires them to be reimbursed — as in the case of Perdue — that it actually happens.
The House Appropriations Committee, however, said it has no mechanism to do that because reimbursements are not reported to it.
Ultimately, Sherman said, the purpose of the Hatch Act is to ensure that government attention and resources are not used for political purposes.
"There are a whole host of states that are deep-blue states or deep-red states that are being neglected by their government because it’s an election year," Sherman said. "And that’s what the law is designed to prevent."
Reporters Hannah Northey and Timothy Cama contributed.