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U.S. News & World Report - Clearing the Air on an Opaque EPA

Op-Ed

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By David Vitter

Sunshine Week couldn't come at a better time this year. President Obama, who pledged that his administration would be "the most open and transparent in history," has just nominated a new head of the Environmental Protection Agency amidst serious problems there proving how hollow that promise is.

The EPA has earned a reputation for ignoring congressional information requests and hiding emails and other information from the public. It's in desperate need of a leader who will reverse those practices and build a true culture of transparency. Unfortunately, the president's nominee Gina McCarthy comes from inside the troubled agency and has been involved in many of the problem areas. So she has an awful lot to answer for.

The most infamous example of the EPA's complete disregard for transparency is outgoing Administrator Lisa Jackson's Richard Windsor emails, a very troubling episode which has been steadily broadening. We've already uncovered a lot of hidden information, but there is so much more we don't yet know.

We do know that Richard Windsor is a fake alias which Lisa Jackson used to communicate with many people, including closely aligned outside environmental groups, about official EPA business. In light of snowballing discoveries, Richard Windsor has become the (fake) poster child for a much broader secret email practice we're discovering at the EPA. It's become clear to me that EPA's main objective through this practice has been to hide the radical nature of its agenda from the American people.

In terms of official, publicly declared policy, the EPA is very clear with instructions to its employees: Do "not use any outside e-mail account to conduct official Agency business."

However, in practice the EPA has condoned, if not actively promoted exactly the opposite. The email abuse wasn't an isolated incident with Jackson; it's been common throughout the bureaucracy, from the acting administrator to multiple regional administrators.

In my judgment, this use of nonofficial emails to hide information from the public led to the resignation of Region 8 Administrator James Martin. He quit a few weeks after a serious congressional investigation was initiated by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and myself.

From that investigation, we now know that many of Martin's previously secret emails center around coordination with far-left environmental groups to actually shut down energy development projects. For instance, he tried to hide extensive communications with the far-left Environmental Defense Fund on how to further bury coal plants under crushing regulations.

A related area of abuse at EPA is its regular stonewalling over proper and legitimate Freedom of Information Act requests from private citizens. FOIA was passed into law in 1966 for a very simple purpose: to direct sunshine onto the federal government. Under Jackson's leadership however, FOIA has become a joke. Al Armendariz, the notorious EPA regional administrator who had to resign after claiming it was EPA policy to "crucify" domestic businesses, actually called FOIA "nonsense."

The EPA has regularly mismanaged FOIA requests at multiple levels. Its staff is poorly trained, does not place a priority on responding to FOIA requests and appears to be more interested in erecting barriers than in ensuring requests are promptly and properly fulfilled.

One example I find particularly outrageous is EPA's Office of General Counsel advising Region 6 officials that it was standard EPA protocol in FOIA cases "to alert the requestor that they need to narrow their request because it is overbroad, and secondarily that it will probably cost more than the amount of $ they agreed to pay." And if that standard protocol isn't met, they ultimately shut down any response.
This wasn't in reaction to a particular request that may have been overbroad. Rather, this was general advice regarding a standard "protocol"--EPA's regular method of stonewalling and obstruction. It lays out that EPA's standard practice includes denying public information requests and threatening the requester with having to pay more.

If Gina McCarthy wants to become the new EPA administrator, she'll need to answer many obvious and pertinent questions about all of this. One area I'll start with is her active coordination with Al Armendariz in shutting down key energy projects. In an email celebrating the death of a petroleum coke plant in Texas, Armendariz wrote in one email: "Gina's new air rules will soon be the icing on the cake."

President Obama's EPA has been wielding unprecedented administrative power over large parts of our economy. Surely American citizens have the right to know how radical its agenda truly is, how it develops its hugely impactful regulations, and if it's been colluding behind the scenes with outside far-left groups.


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