Andrew Wheeler during his confirmation hearing to be Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency before the United States Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on November 8th, 2017. Alex Edelman/CNP/AP
Ex-coal lobbyist takes over for Pruitt at EPA
02:38 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt had his staff slow-walk “politically charged” public information requests, according to a letter written by House Oversight Democrats on Friday, which cites excerpts of testimony with Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson.

Jackson, who now serves as chief of staff to Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, told the committee earlier this month that he was involved in hand-selecting which requests would be processed first under the federal Freedom of Information Act, according to the letter sent Friday to House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican.

Democrats on the committee are now asking for a subpoena for more records that would show the EPA’s policy for handling these request, indicating in the letter that political appointees hand-selected some requests to be processed differently, and in one case, gave favorable treatment to an industry lobbyist.

An EPA spokesman said the “awareness review is not unique to this administration,” and the process “allows the press office, Congressional affairs office and senior officials to be informed” of requests and upcoming document releases.

“Congressional Democrats are selectively releasing parts of the transcript through the media producing an incomplete and inaccurate narrative,” the spokesman, who asked to not be named, said in a statement. “EPA has responded to a record number of FOIA requests and will continue to do so.”

Neither Jackson nor the spokesman for Gowdy responded to requests for comment on Friday morning.

According to the letter, Jackson told the committee that during Pruitt’s controversial tenure, the EPA was getting 40 to 60 Freedom of Information Act requests a week, and he and Elizabeth Beacham White, the director of the executive secretariat, would run a list of FOIA requests by public affairs staff to decide which requests would be processed first.

Beacham White’s appointment to that position — which serves as gatekeeper for some of the most sensitive documents — is controversial because she formerly worked for Pruitt’s political action committee. The EPA has touted her 18 years of experience in government ethics and compliance as justification.

The letter says Jackson cited a request by the Sierra Club which produced tens of thousands of emails from Pruitt and his staff, and ultimately lead to the news stories the proceeded his resignation.

“There’s no — there was no reason for it. There was no topic. It was just a fishing expedition,” Jackson told the committee. “And so when I say it’s politically charged, there’s no real FOIA, you know, Freedom of Information Act reason for it, it is just simply submitted to us to see what we will produce.”

Jackson also said that the EPA was prioritizing older requests from the Obama administration instead of current ones related to Pruitt’s time at the EPA, according to the letter.

RELATED: EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s long list of controversies

In one case, however, the letter says Jackson confirmed that he helped fast-track a request from Michael Formica, the assistant vice president for the Pork Producers Council who was seeking information about livestock emissions.

“I was contacted by someone asking that I could — if I could help with this,” Jackson said. He denied helping on the basis that Formica is a friend or because he is an industry lobbyist.

Pruitt resigned July 5, citing “unrelenting attacks” on his judgment. At the time, he faced 16 federal probes into his conduct, including some from fellow Republicans. The House Oversight Committee has said they intend to continue looking at a myriad of allegations of ethical misconduct during his time in office, despite his resignation. Several investigative bodies, including the EPA inspector general, have said their probes will continue despite Pruitt’s resignation.