If President Biden is serious about finding a renewable energy source, he should look down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA’s door revolves fast enough to power the nation for decades, with the rate of spin exceeded only by the attempts to provide cover over possible ethics missteps.
Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) has developed an extensive file of probable ethics violations by senior EPA officials. Many of these violations appear to occur because the EPA has ignored or sidestepped rules governing “the revolving door” between government and the private sector, though they certainly don’t stop there. As our Ethics Waiver Report demonstrated, the Biden Administration has perfected the practice of recruiting appointees from the universe of aligned environmental activist groups, state agencies, and universities. The inevitable conflicts of interest are buried under a blizzard of ethics waivers and then, after putting in enough time to learn the federal ropes, some go back to more lucrative and senior positions outside.
For example, Casey Katims joined EPA from Washington State where he worked for Governor Jay Inslee, who helped create the U.S. Climate Alliance (USCA). As EPA’s deputy associate administrator for intergovernmental relations, Katims kept extremely close relations with USCA and eventually left EPA to join it as executive director.
Melissa Hoffer departed the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office to become acting General Counsel at EPA, where she was given a waiver to participate in 37 pending matters involving Massachusetts. When she left the EPA, she ignored her obligation to timely advise the ethics office of negotiations to rejoin Massachusetts government as its first-ever “Climate Czar.” That failure is likely a violation of the Stock Act (a criminal statute) – inexcusable for a senior lawyer with Hoffer’s experience and responsibilities. It was made worse by the career agency ethics official, Justina Fugh, designated to enforce the rules. Sadly, this is far from the only incident in which Ms. Fugh appears to have played a central role in moving the goalposts to thwart violations from landing on senior officials.
Many EPA appointments came from powerful, well-funded environmental special interest groups. Alejandra Nunez joined EPA from the Sierra Club. Tomás Carbonell was at the Environmental Defense Fund. Dimple Chaudhary worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council. All three were attorneys for organizations that constantly have business before the EPA, and as of January 2021 were party to dozens of pending lawsuits with the agency. Thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, attorney Marianne Engelman-Lado, who’d been at Vermont Law School, Yale, and Earthjustice, was granted a waiver to engage with a former client because the “overlap of recusals” threatened her office’s ability to function.
Then there’s Joseph Goffman, the principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation (OAR), who is currently performing the delegated duties of the assistant administrator and the subject of three PPT ethics complaints. Goffman, formerly with Harvard University, looked to the same career ethics official who sought to bail out Ms. Hoffer to “unring the [ethics] bell” of an admitted ethics violation. PPT discovered that at least five Harvard-affiliated individuals who reached out to Goffman were later hired at EPA, including in career positions, and that emails between him and his former employer in just his first few months at the agency totaled over 100 pages! Add in his apparent failure to timely divest from dozens of investments that created financial conflicts of interest and Goffman is a front-runner for favorite client at the EPA’s ethics office.
Our concerns extend beyond communicating with and giving preferential treatment to former employers. EPA leadership, with the creative assistance of career ethics officials like Ms. Fugh, have also brushed aside emoluments clause concerns (senior EPA science official Christopher Frey’s ties to a Chinese university) and traditional outside solicitation restrictions (Georgetown Law Board of Advisors and senior EPA lawyer Susannah Weaver) when it meant allowing their appointees to maintain their private sector relationships. While congressional oversight has occasionally made a difference – Mr. Goffman remains unconfirmed and Mr. Frey was eventually forced to resign his Chinese university post – Administrator Regan and his subordinates seem undeterred from signing off on these decisions.
Career officials also appear to have gotten in on the action. For instance, a pending consent decree concerning one of the largest Superfund cleanups in history (nearly $2 billion!) rests largely on the work of a former EPA employee, David Batson, who since leaving the agency in 2015 has gone on to land contracts with both the Department of Justice and the EPA to work on the same Superfund cleanup he actively worked on while at EPA. This is a big no-no, according to federal ethics laws.
The near farcical reasoning for so many ethics waivers, “oops” violations, outside employment approvals, and discarded post-employment restrictions demonstrates a culture unmoored from ethical norms. While the undivided support from an ethics office along the way has provided plausible deniability, the reality is that it has only served to deepen the rot that has nearly destroyed the public’s trust in its government.
Michael Chamberlain is the Director of Protect the Public’s Trust.