Cummings Releases New Allegations that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is Avoiding Producing Records About His Tenure
Washington, D.C. (June 11, 2018)—Today, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt requesting documents relating to new reports that he sought to delay producing records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) relating to his tenure.
“Given the vast number of allegations against you, the American people deserve more transparency regarding your actions—not less,” Cummings wrote.
Cummings’ letter explained that on April 10, 2018, Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and a campaign aide to President Donald Trump, informed Cummings’ staff that Pruitt appeared to be intentionally delaying the release of documents relating to his tenure at EPA, directing staff not to respond until requests from the Obama Administration had been completed. According to Chmielewski, during a meeting of Pruitt’s front office senior staff, he directed staff to justify this tactic using the talking point of “first in, first out.”
Cummings also released new details from bipartisan transcribed interviews with Millan Hupp, Pruitt’s former Director of Scheduling and Advance, and Sarah Greenwalt, Pruitt’s Senior Advisor, confirming this new “first in, first out” policy.
“The orders you apparently gave to delay producing documents relating to your tenure appear to directly contradict EPA’s own FOIA regulations, as well as guidance issued by the Department of Justice,” Cummings wrote.
EPA regulations require the agency to use “multitrack processing” in which simple requests are processed more quickly than complex requests, and if the agency determines that a request would be placed in the slower track, the agency would provide the requester with the opportunity to narrow the scope of the request. Guidance issued by the Department of Justice encourages agencies to use multi-track processing so that simple requests are processed more quickly and do not get stuck behind older, more complex requests.
“Your actions are particularly troubling in light of multiple reports that you have retaliated against EPA staff who disclose waste, fraud, and abuse,” Cummings wrote.
Cummings also expressed concern that internal EPA documents indicate that Pruitt has instituted a new review process requiring political appointees to review FOIA responses before they are released instead of allowing career employees to handle these matters.
In addition, Greenwalt told Committee staff in her interview that she reviewed responses to FOIA requests and identified potential additional redactions as part of her duties as the Senior Advisor for Water and Cross-Cutting Issues.
“Under your tenure, EPA’s front office is now responding more slowly, withholding more information, and rejecting more requests, according to EPA’s own data and independent sources,” Cummings wrote. “Combined with your refusal to produce documents requested by Congress, your actions in delaying records under FOIA raise concerns about a fundamental lack of transparency at EPA.”
For example, the nonpartisan watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight has reported that only 16.6% of FOIA requests to the Administrator’s office were closed from January 20, 2017, to December 29, 2017, compared to a closure rate of 78.76% for all EPA requests during that same period.
In addition, according to EPA’s FOIA report for Fiscal Year 2017, EPA granted full requests at a lower rate in 2017 than in the last year of the Obama Administration in 2016, and it also denied full requests at a higher rate than in the last year of the Obama Administration.
Cummings noted that the Committee has condemned on a bipartisan basis political interference in the FOIA process. During a hearing in 2011, Rep. Trey Gowdy criticized an official from the Department of Homeland Security for having political appointees review FOIA responses. He asked the witness, “Would you concede that slow walking or taking your time in complying with an otherwise legitimate FOIA request could be interference?”
Click here to read today’s letter.