Investigations May Bring News in 2018

December 12, 2017

TipSheet: Investigations May Bring News in 2018

This special TipSheet is one in a series of reports from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Stay tuned for more in coming weeks and for the full “2018 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report in late January.

The environment and energy beat may see much news generated from various watchdog investigations in 2018. Almost a dozen probes have been launched by (or requested from) the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, and from agency inspector generals. Most have yet to produce findings, but we can expect results in 2018 for most of them.

EPA-related investigations

  • Frequent and Expensive Travel. The Inspector General for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has expanded an investigation into travel by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Pruitt had initially come under fire for unusually frequent travel at taxpayer expense back to his home state of Oklahoma. The EPA IG in late August announced that it was investigating this travel. Later, it came out that some of the travel was on more expensive military aircraft and the IG expanded the scope of its investigation.
  • Meeting with National Mining Association. EPA’s IG has also agreed to investigate (subscription required) Pruitt’s April 2017 meeting with the National Mining Association. The Government Accountability Office had already agreed to give a legal opinion on whether the meeting violated lobbying laws — requested by House Democrats. But GAO said it could not render the legal opinion without an account of what happened at the meeting. This prompted House Energy Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) to ask the EPA IG for an investigation of those facts.
  • Logo of EPA Office of Inspector General
    EPA Purge of Scientific Advisory Boards. The GAO may further investigate the propriety of Pruitt’s purge of the agency’s science advisory panels and replacement of their members with industry-friendly scientists. Ten Democratic senators asked for the expanded probe Nov. 9. GAO had already done an investigation of the standards EPA uses for putting members on some 23 science panels (GAO found them unclear).
  • Soundproof Phone Booth. House Democrats on Oct. 5 asked the EPA IG to investigate Pruitt’s spending of $25,000 on a soundproof phone booth. The request came from top Democrats on the House Energy Committee. Democrats asked not only whether the spending was wasteful (since EPA has a secure phone facility a few floors away from Pruitt’s office), but whether the secrecy itself was proper.
  • Beef Industry Advocacy Video. The GAO is investigating Pruitt’s appearance in a video produced by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association urging change of an EPA rule. The video urged ranchers and others to comment on EPA’s effort to repeal the “Waters of the United States” rule, defining EPA’s water pollution jurisdiction. Use of government resources for propaganda is illegal. The investigation was requested by top House Democrats from four committees.
  • Personal Email Account. The Oklahoma Bar Association said in March that it was investigating (subscription required) Pruitt over use of personal email accounts. Pruitt had stated under oath at his Jan. 18 Senate confirmation hearing that he did not use his personal email to conduct official business while he was Oklahoma attorney general. A complaint to the bar association offered evidence that he had in fact done so.
  • Hiring Practices. The GAO is investigating whether EPA violated a Trump administration order forbidding agency employees from participating in any matter on which they had lobbied in the last two years. The investigation was requested in August by top Democrats on the Senate Environment Committee.

Interior-related investigations

  • Zinke Travel Costs. The Interior Department’s Inspector General is investigating travel expenses for Secretary Ryan Zinke. Although the Interior secretary has a lot of territory to cover as administrator of U.S. public lands, Zinke has come under fire for travel critics see as unnecessarily expensive (such as that involving military or chartered jets). After complaints, the IG opened an investigation. Initially, the IG reported that it was stymied by lack of documentation from the secretary. More recently, it was expanded to include the travels and political activities of Zinke’s wife.
  • Zinke Call to Murkowski. The Interior IG opened a preliminary investigation Aug. 3 about a phone call from Zinke to Senate Energy Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). It had been reported that in the call, which came ahead of an important Senate vote on the GOP Obamacare repeal, Zinke threatened Murkowski with negative consequences for her state. Murkowski, who also chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds Zinke’s agency, may actually have more power over Zinke than he has over her state. The probe was dropped the same month when Murkowski declined to be interviewed.
  • Staff Transfers Under Zinke. Interior’s IG is also investigating (subscription required) Zinke’s reassignment of certain personnel. As a result, further reassignments were temporarily put on hold. The complaints began when Joel Clement was reassigned from his work on climate policy, along with others. This prompted eight Senate Democrats (subscription required) to ask the IG for an investigation.
  • Puerto Rico Whitefish Electric Contract. After Hurricane Maria knocked out most of Puerto Rico’s electric grid, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority let a contract to Whitefish Energy for reconstruction. That contract initially drew scrutiny because it was a two-person company with apparent links to Interior Secretary Zinke, although that may have been coincidence. Two Democratic senators asked the GAO to conduct an investigation.

More reporting resources

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 47. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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