By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top Democrat on the House oversight committee on Monday accused Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt of directing political appointees to delay or block the release of requested public records, raising questions about transparency at the agency.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland wrote in a letter to Pruitt that internal EPA documents and interviews with former EPA aides reveal that Pruitt’s changes to how Freedom of Information Act requests are processed violate EPA and Department of Justice rules.
“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’ concerns about Pruitt’s handling of the FOIA process come as the EPA chief comes under scrutiny for reports involving questionable spending on travel and use of security detail, connections with lobbyists and industry groups and use of his office for favors.
He asked Pruitt to submit documents and communications related to his FOIA response policies from Jan 20, 2017 to Cumming’s committee by June 25.
There are a dozen separate investigations of Pruitt’s behavior in progress by the EPA inspector general, the White House and other federal agencies.
In Cummings’ letter, he cited a former Republican aide who said that Pruitt directed front office staff to respond first to old Obama administration FOIA requests before those related to Pruitt’s tenure, which he said contradicts EPA and DOJ rules.
He also cited internal EPA documents and said Pruitt has required senior political appointees to review FOIA responses before they are released, ” practice our Committee has condemned on a bipartisan basis in the past.”
Cummings said while the previous administration faced similar questions about political interference with FOIA requests, the Inspector General in 2015 found in a report that political appointees were rarely involved in the FOIA response process.
“Your actions injecting politics into the FOIA process mark a stark departure from previous practice,” he wrote.
EPA spokesperson Kelsi Daniell said in a statement that the agency under Pruitt has seen a 200 percent increase in FOIA requests in Pruitt’s office alone and “is working to release them in a timely manner.”
“We will respond through the proper channels,” Daniell said. “When Administrator Pruitt arrived at EPA he inherited a backlog of FOIA requests, some dating back to 2008, and over the last year and a half, EPA has worked tirelessly to clear this backlog.”