This story was updated at 3:10 p.m. EDT.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa threatened to hold U.S. EPA chief Gina McCarthy in contempt of Congress today over subpoenaed documents that he says her agency is withholding.
"You have not complied with the subpoena. I am telling you the time to comply is now," the California Republican warned McCarthy during a heated exchange on Capitol Hill. "I'm informing you today that it is my intention to hold the Environmental Protection Agency in contempt, to schedule a business meeting to do so at the first business day available to this committee, which will be after next week."
Last November, Issa issued a subpoena for documents pertaining to a host of Republican-led probes into the agency, including documents and communications between EPA and the White House referring to congressional requests for information. Issa has accused the White House of interfering with his panel's investigations into EPA's activities (Greenwire, Nov. 11, 2013).
McCarthy defended EPA's actions, saying the agency had provided the committee with documents and showed the committee staff an additional document this morning that attempted to satisfy Issa's request. "We've worked hard to recognize the interests of this committee in ensuring that there's no White House interference in the work between us and delivering what you require," she said.
The EPA chief said the committee had cast a "pretty broad search," seeking five years' worth of communications between EPA and the White House. She noted that there may be problems releasing all the documents in question.
"We believe that we need to have confidential communications with the White House," she said.
McCarthy added that the agency is trying hard to work with the committee on the matter, prompting further outrage from Issa.
"Can you imagine if I just went ahead and set up a coal energy plant without a permit and started burning raw coal to produce electricity and then told you for month after month after month that I looked forward to working with you?" he told McCarthy.
When McCarthy asked that they continue discussions on the matter, Issa interrupted her. "Ma'am, the president of the United States said elections have consequences," he said, and accused Democrats of lagging on oversight when they held the House majority. "This is my watch; this is my time."
Democrats defended the EPA chief.
"Generally, when the nets are that wide, what's going on is called a fishing expedition," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). He said a contempt threat would make an "awfully nice headline" and that the members of the press in the room would comply, while issues like the substance of EPA's work would be set aside or "lost in the noise."
Lawmakers also pressed McCarthy on EPA's management problems in the wake of the fraud of former EPA air official John Beale, who is serving time in prison after lying for years about doing secret CIA work.
McCarthy said the agency is still working to recoup additional funds from Beale, even after he paid more than $1 million to pay back stolen salary and bonuses. That includes reducing his retirement annuity -- which he's receiving despite years of stealing cash from the government.
Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) joked, "I'm wondering if he gets one from the CIA."
Republicans on the panel also continued ongoing criticism of EPA employee misconduct issues after investigators recently revealed problems with employees watching pornography on the job and other examples of bad behavior.
Connolly said such behavior isn't limited to EPA, noting that "Congress itself is hardly clean here," citing examples of cocaine use, prostitution and other inappropriate activities.
"That doesn't mean that we want to in any way, shape or form condone inappropriate activity," he said. "But to somehow pretend in our questioning that it's unique to you and EPA is really a bit much."
Pebble mine project
Issa also grilled McCarthy on her agency's potential veto of the Pebble copper and gold mining project in southwestern Alaska.
Because the company has yet to submit permit-application documents, Issa said the science on the potential mine is "not just in question; it's unavailable."
Having expressed concern about an EPA pre-emptive Clean Water Act veto of key Corps of Engineers permits, Issa asked McCarthy to "reconsider and allow the application to go forward."
EPA, after years of review, released its Bristol Bay watershed assessment earlier this year, showing that a large mine would damage the area's salmon fishery. "Our science assessment has been in the public for quite some time," McCarthy said.
Even though EPA is interfering in Pebble at the request of several tribal groups, critics point to documents showing EPA mulling a veto even before the 2010 petition.
Former EPA scientist Phil North has also agreed to support a Clean Water Act Section 404 veto and was in contact with mine opponents. The panel, however, has been unable to track him down to interview him (E&E Daily, June 11).
McCarthy stressed that "no decision has been made whatsoever" regarding whether to veto Pebble. And she said her agency was "not pre-empting the project from moving forward." The Army Corps, however, cannot process a permit until EPA has finished its review.
Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.) asked McCarthy whether she knew where North was. "No sir, I don't know that," she said.
Bentivolio also queried McCarthy about North's work computer hard drive crashing, making some of his emails unavailable. It's one reason panel leaders are so keen on speaking with him.
"We have submitted all we have identified and continued to search," McCarthy said. "There are some gaps, but we have submitted significant amounts."
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) asked McCarthy whether North had backed up his emails and suggested a violation of federal record-keeping rules.
Meadows asked McCarthy, "Did you notify the National Archives? When did you do that?" McCarthy responded, "Yesterday. I am still hoping we recover all the emails."
EPA sent the National Archives and Records Administration a letter yesterday describing a potential loss of emails between April 2007 and May 2009. The agency did not say why documents may be missing, only noting there was no evidence of intentional destruction.
Meadows also touched on North's contacts with Pebble opponents. He asked McCarthy, "Does that concern you that there might be collusion?"
She said later in the hearing, "I don't see any evidence that there was collusion here." McCarthy also stressed an ongoing Office of Inspector General investigation and said North was a "fish biologist and not a decisionmaker for the agency."
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