Leak Threat Looms Over EPA Following Inauguration

By Brian Dabbs

Dec. 2 — The incoming Trump administration could trigger a renewed and intensified culture of leaks at the Environmental Protection Agency, several former EPA staffers and a high-level career staffer currently at the agency, told Bloomberg BNA.

Many EPA staffers became disgruntled after President-elect Donald Trump peppered his campaign appearances with critical rhetoric against the agency, said the individuals.

That low morale could ramp up the likelihood of leaks to news services and investigative organizations—signaling internal conflicts among offices and opposition to broader policy, as well as other more subtle tactics to stall the regulatory process, they said.

Staffers overwhelmingly opposed Trump before he scored a surprise victory Nov. 8, the staffer said. Along the campaign trail, he called for “tremendous cutting” at the EPA, adding that staffers “aren’t doing their job” while “making it impossible for our country to compete.”

Potential Internal Dissent

An antagonistic approach toward the agency could leave the nearly 15,000 employees prone to release agency information, said Bob Sussman, a former senior policy counsel at the EPA during the Obama administration.

“I think if Trump tries to do anything like what he threatened to do during the campaign, EPA will be a very difficult place to work,” Sussman said. “You may have people leaving the agency, or acting very slowly to carry out responsibilities that they see as contradictory to the mission and statutory authority of the agency.”

The career staffer—a senior enforcement official at the compliance office who asked to be anonymous—agreed.

“You can probably anticipate a lot of leak-type warfare coming up,” said the staffer. “But some of that will depend on who the [new EPA] administrator will be. If there’s a reception that the administrator is an industry hack, employees will do anything they can do to undermine credibility of the administration.”

Those interviewed said regulatory documents and internal e-mails are typically subject to leaks. Compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act requires the internal exchange of countless rulemaking and other documents typically shielded from the public. An EPA spokeswoman didn’t reply to a Bloomberg BNA request for an official policy on internal information disclosure.

Ebell Leading Team

Trump has yet to name a nominee to head the EPA. Myron Ebell, a well-known climate skeptic, leads the transition team. Trump also added Amy Oliver Cooke, a hydraulic fracturing expert with the Independence Institute, to the team Dec. 1.

The career staffer said David Schnare, a former EPA staff attorney and current counsel at the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, also is part of the landing team that has arrived at the EPA to oversee the transition.

EPA staffers traditionally leak a relatively large volume of materials, said a number of former staffers, including Rick Otis, a high-ranking EPA Office of Policy, Economics and Innovation official under George W. Bush.

“It’s always been somewhat of a leaky place. You have to assume that, if you’re working on a document that is particularly important, it’s going to be leaked,” Otis said. “I always assumed that if a document was of a high enough interest it would be leaked, even if it didn’t make it to the media. Someone may just send it to an interest group. That’s just a given to me.”

Staff Loyalty

Otis said leaks are sometimes tied to staff loyalty regardless of political affiliation, adding that he wasn’t sure if leaking has decreased under President Barack Obama.

But Doug Parker, a criminal investigation director with the EPA for roughly 25 years, said leaks have been more infrequent during the past eight years compared to the preceding administration.

“There may be an uptick [during the Trump administration] in extra-official communications should we say, but that’s nothing new in this town,” he said. “The leaking of information is driven more by policy than an administration, particularly contentious policy issues.”

Despite the looming threat, Otis said leak culture typically is tied more to staff choice than leadership tactics.

“To chase down an employee, or to put a code word in a document or some kind of signal, all those things do nothing but make for a difficult working environment, undermine your authority and don’t work anyway. So you just don’t do it,” he said.

Shrouded in Secrecy

A Nov. 28 internal e-mail, authored by EPA Presidential Transition Director Shannon Kenny, advised rank-and-file agency employees to refuse contact with any Trump landing team members and anyone from outside the EPA, including media.

According to the EPA staffer, one high-level manager said employees also should avoid internal complaints, emphasizing the need to be “stronger together,” which was the slogan of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Another high-level manager said EPA employees should avoid putting anything in e-mails that they don’t want to surface in the media, the career staffer said.

Still, there is no indication at this time that EPA employees won’t stick with the agency, he said.

“There certainly has not been any wholesale movement away from the agency, kind of like people aren’t fleeing to Canada and Jupiter like they said they would during the campaign,” the staffer said. “I do see an element of wait and see.”

A self-described “conservationist” rather than an “environmentalist,” the staffer criticized the EPA’s recent focus as being too abstract. The agency needs to emphasize far more the cost-benefit analysis of rulemaking, he said. For example, you could ax the Clean Power Plan and clamp down on climate change through reducing pipeline fugitive methane and natural gas flaring, he said.

Jon Jacobs, a former career senior attorney at EPA now with Jacobs Stotsky PLLC, told Bloomberg BNA, “for people who survive change well, they will do great at EPA.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington, D.C., at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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