POLITICS

Hatch Act probe closed for top EPA official

A government watchdog agency has quietly dismissed a complaint brought last year alleging that EPA's press office violated the Hatch Act in its handling of a top air official's politically charged resignation letter.

The complaint had been brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) last February on the grounds that the letter from Mandy Gunasekara advocated for President Trump's reelection.

Press aides in EPA's Office of Public Affairs who then gave the letter to reporters violated the act's prohibition on using official government time and resources for political activity, PEER said (E&E News PM, Feb. 11, 2019).

But after investigating, the Office of Special Counsel found that press office employees had followed standard practice in giving Gunasekara's letter to reporters who requested it once she granted permission, according to its response to PEER's complaint last September.

As a result, "OSC is closing this matter without further action," Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the office's Hatch Act unit, said in the response.

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"EPA is pleased with this expected outcome of the investigation," agency spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer said in an email yesterday when asked for comment.

But PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse questioned the logic underlying the decision.

"The OSC seems to be saying that because EPA had Ms. Gunasekara's permission to write and distribute the letter, it was OK, despite the content," Whitehouse said in a separate message. "That's nonsensical and allows for a further chipping away" of the act's requirements, he said.

Because Gunasekara, who was principal deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Air and Radiation, had left EPA by the time the complaint was filed, the Hatch Act's application to her was moot, PEER had acknowledged.

The group's complaint "was frivolous from the start," Gunasekara said yesterday.

Gunasekara quit her EPA job to run Energy 45, an advocacy group she created to promote Trump's energy policies. She is now poised to rejoin the agency as chief of staff after Ryan Jackson stepped down last week, sources have told E&E News (Greenwire, Feb. 14). Gunasekara has declined to comment for the record on the possibility.

The Office of Special Counsel's decision has not previously been reported. Following standard practice, the agency did not make it public and neither PEER nor the EPA press office drew attention to it at the time. Whitehouse provided a copy of the decision to E&E News last week after a reporter inquired about the complaint's status in light of Gunasekara's expected return to the agency.

The Hatch Act generally bars federal workers from engaging in on-the-job partisan political activities; the Office of Special Counsel is an independent agency charged with enforcing it.

"Mr. President, you are truly making America great again," Gunasekara said in last February's letter, written on EPA letterhead and addressed to Trump (Greenwire, Feb. 7, 2019). "Ensuring eight years of your leadership is of utmost importance."

The letter had first been reported by the online news site Axios, which did not name its source.

Following inquiries from E&E News, press office staff provided both a copy of the letter and a statement from EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler lauding Gunasekara as a "vital member" of Trump's team. PEER, which has been critical of a wide swath of administration policies, referenced the subsequent story in its complaint.

Twitter: @SeanatGreenwireEmail: sreilly@eenews.net

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