ICYMI: EPA Playing Politics with FOIA Fee Waivers
May 20, 2013
Last week, Rep. Darrell Issa and Sens. David Vitter, Chuck Grassley, and James Inhofe sent a letter to EPA's Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe regarding the Agency's practice of frequently granting fee waivers for Freedom of Information Act requests to national environmental groups, but rarely granting them to conservative think tanks, States and local entities. Click here to read Rep. Issa, Sen. Vitter, Sen. Grassley, and Sen. Inhofe's letter. Scroll down for news articles on the investigation.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers on Friday began an investigation into whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency greatly favored left-leaning environmentalists over conservative groups when granting fee waivers for requests to access information.
The lawmakers drew a comparison between the actions they say the EPA has taken with the Internal Revenue Service, which is embroiled in controversy over its targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
Republican Senators David Vitter of Louisiana, Charles Grassley of Iowa and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Representative Darrell Issa of California, raised the issue in a letter to the acting administrator of the EPA.
The four lawmakers serve as the top Republicans on the environment, judiciary and House oversight and government reform committees, respectively.
They asked why 92 percent of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) fee waivers were granted to "environmental allies," while just 8 percent were granted to conservative think tanks. The disparity came to light this week in a report by a conservative research group.
Agencies can waive fees for requested information if they determine the information contributes to the public understanding of governmental activities.
"This disparate treatment is unacceptable, especially in light of the recent controversy over abusive tactics at the Internal Revenue Service, which singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Bob Perciasepe, the EPA's acting administrator.
The Republicans accused the EPA of colluding with groups that share its political agenda and requested that the agency takes steps to ensure this does not happen again.
They requested that the EPA provide a list of all fee waiver decision letters on a monthly basis, make the agency's FOIA officer available for a transcribed interview and provide any materials used to train FOIA officers on how to process fee waiver requests.
Vitter met with Perciasepe earlier in the week and said he made progress with him on five key areas in which the EPA can improve its transparency, including how it handles FOIA requests.
Interest groups, researchers and journalists have filed FOIA requests with the EPA to understand how it goes about its process of writing regulations. Conservative groups have called this process opaque.
Perciasepe is heading the EPA while President Barack Obama's nominee to head the agency, Gina McCarthy, remains in the middle of a tough confirmation process.
McCarthy has had requests to answer more than 1,000 questions by Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Democrats have termed a record number.
Her nomination was sent to the full Senate on Thursday after a party line vote in committee. No date has been set for consideration. The first committee vote scheduled on McCarthy was abandoned when Republicans boycotted the meeting.
By Mark Tapscott | May 17, 2013
Congressional Republicans have accused the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of giving unfair preference to environmental groups when it comes to information requests.
The lawmakers compared the agency's behavior to the recent revelation that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) gave additional scrutiny to Tea Party organizations.
In a letter to Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe on Friday, four Republicans accused the agency of routinely waiving fees for environmental groups who seek documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) but making conservative think tanks and state and local governments pay full price.
This disparate treatment is unacceptable, especially in light of the recent controversy over abusive tactics at the Internal Revenue Service, which singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny, the legislators wrote.
Sens. David Vitter (R-La.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) signed on to the letter.
The legislators pointed to data that show that 92 percent of all fee waivers granted by the EPA were to requests from environmental groups.
The startling disparity in treatment strongly suggests EPA's actions are possibly part of a broader effort to collude with groups that share the agency's political agenda and discriminate against states and conservative organizations, they alleged. This is a clear abuse of discretion.
They want the agency to submit to Congress information on fee waivers going back to 2009 and seek to question the official in charge of the FOIA office.
The agency is ordering a review of its policies to ensure fairness.
Like other parts of the federal government, the EPA sometimes charges fees for research hours and photocopying of documents requested by a FOIA.
The agency judges requests for waived fees based on six factors, and a requester must prove that the information is in the public interest and not primarily commercially motivated.
EPA makes FOIA waiver determinations based on legal requirements that are consistently applied to all fee waiver requests, not on the identity of the reporter, said EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson in an email. EPA has requested the agency's independent Inspector General to review these criteria to ensure EPA's FOIA process remains open, fair and transparent.
The Republicans' allegations are the latest in a string of criticism against the agency, a pattern that some Democrats claim is obstructionist and designed to prevent the agency from carrying out its duties.
President Obama's nominee to lead the EPA, Gina McCarthy, advanced out of committee on a party line vote on Thursday, but Democrats worry about a Republican filibuster on the Senate floor.
It's been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week at the White House-and it isn't looking like next week will be any better. You probably know about Obama's trifecta of troubles: the Benghazi story about the attack that killed four Americans and the aftermath that falsely blamed a YouTube video that "continues to smolder on the far-right side of the dial," the IRS targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny while giving liberals a pass, and, the one that got the mainstream media engaged: the "broad and potentially chilling probe" conducted by the Justice Department on journalists' phone calls at the Associated Press (AP).
The place in which the President finds himself has been compared to that of Nixon on May 17, 1973, about which US News and World Report states: "The scandal and cover-up came to define and destroy Richard Nixon's presidency. It's too early to tell if the scandals plaguing President Barack Obama ... rise to a similar level."
It may be too early to tell whether the three scandals will "define and destroy" Barack Obama's presidency-but they do reveal a propensity to massage the message and reward their friends while destroying their enemies. And, there are more than the trifecta of troubles that make this point, there's a six-pack of scandals.
In addition to the three-widely covered stories, there are three more with the same characteristics.
EPA Favors Friendlies
We see favoritism in the EPAs treatment of friendly groups vs. a "concerted campaign to make life more difficult for those deemed unfriendly." A few days ago, the Washington Examiner reported on the Competitive Enterprise Institute's (CEI) review of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to see how equally the agency applies its fee waiver policy. The results are shocking.
Chris Horner, Senior Fellow at CEI, told me: "The IRS and EPA revelations are near-identical uses of the state to enable allies and disadvantage opponents. Granting or denying tax-exempt status can make or break a group. The same is true with FOIA fee waivers being tossed like Mardi Gras beads at greens, and denied to opponents of a bigger regulatory state. Fees for FOIA document productions can run into the six-figures."
We'll be hearing more about the EPA friendlies scandal. On Friday, May 17, Senator Vitter's office sent a letter to EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe requesting "your prompt attention to this matter as we investigate EPA's process for granting FOIA fee waivers." The letter was signed by David Vitter, Ranking Member, Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate; Darrel Isa, Chairman, Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, U.S. House of Representatives; James Inhofe, Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Oversight Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate; and Charles E. Grassley, Ranking Member, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate.
The May 17 letter states: "According to documents obtained by the Committees, EPA readily granted FOIA fee waivers for liberal environmental groups-effectively subsidizing them-while denying fee waivers and making the FOIA process more difficult for states and conservative groups. This disparate treatment is unacceptable, especially in light of the recent controversy over abusive tactics at the Internal Revenue Service, which singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny."
It reveals that the "EPA manipulated the FOIA fee waiver process." Fee waiver requests sent by environmental groups were granted for 92% of the requests while EPA denied a fee waiver for 93% of requests from CEI and overall only granted fee waivers for other think tanks 27% of the time. "The startling disparity in treatment strongly suggests EPA's actions are possibly part of a broader effort to collude with groups that share the agency's political agenda and discriminate against states and conservative organizations. This is a clear abuse of discretion."
The Washington Examiner reports: "all requests from Franklin Center and the Institute for Energy Research were denied."
Wind farms get a pass
We see the same "startling disparity in treatment" in the way the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act is applied. Under both acts, the death of a single bird-without a permit-is illegal. On May 14, the AP reported on an investigation that showed that nearly 600,000 birds are killed each year by wind farms, including an average of about one golden eagle a month in Converse County, WY-which the AP calls: "one of the deadliest places in the country of its kind." California's Altamont Pass wind farms "kill more than 60 per year"-making it the "industry's deadliest location."
Yet, "so far, the companies operating industrial-sized turbines here and elsewhere that are killing eagles and other protected birds have yet to be fined or prosecuted-even though every death is a criminal violation. The Obama administration has charged oil companies for drowning birds in their waste pits, and power companies for electrocuting birds on power lines. But the administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind-energy company, even those that flout the law repeatedly."
Back in August 2011, oil company executives were hauled into court, by Timothy Purdon, the US Attorney for North Dakota, over the death of 28 migratory birds-including ducks. Businessweek reported: "The maximum penalty for each charge under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is six months in prison and a $15,000 fine." The case was thrown out of federal court in January of 2012 by district Judge Daniel Hovland, who rejected US Attorney Purdon's "expansive interpretation of the law" because it "would yield absurd results." The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) called the ruling "withering" and said: the "selective prosecution was probably an expression of its political hostility to oil and gas companies." The report concludes with: "Mr. Purdon takes the prize for dodo prosecutor of the year."
The WSJ didn't point out Purdon's resume. The LA Times reports: "Purdon is a prominent Democratic donor and fundraiser," who served on the Democratic National Committee and who "has no experience as a prosecutor." Purdon was chosen over several, apparently, more qualified candidates, who probably didn't have Purdon's pedigree. He was selected because he's a loyalist who'd do what the White House wanted-and that included prosecuting oil companies for duck deaths.
Similarly, the AP reports that ExxonMobil paid $600,000 for killing 85 birds and BP was fined "$100 million for killing and harming migratory birds during the 2010 Gulf oil spill. And PacifiCorp, which operates coal plants in Wyoming, paid more than $10.5 million in 2009 for electrocuting 232 eagles along power lines and at its substations."
"Meanwhile, the Obama administration has proposed a rule that would give wind-energy companies potentially decades of shelter from prosecution for killing eagles." The wind-energy industry has been part of the committee that drafted and edited the guidelines that the Interior Department updated last year that "provided more cover for wind companies that violate the law." The AP states: "In the end, the wind-energy industry ... got almost everything it wanted."
Former US Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement agent Tom Eicher aptly sums up the scandal: "What it boils down to is this: If you electrocute an eagle, that is bad, but if you chop it to pieces, that is OK." Yet, in an interview with the AP before his departure, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "denied any preferential treatment for wind."
Expect more coverage of the preferential application of regulatory enforcement. Rep. Doc Hasting, Chairman of the House Natural Resources committee, made the following statement through spokeswoman Jill Strait: "There are serious concerns that the Obama administration is not implementing this law fairly and equally." The Committee is in "the beginning stages of an investigation."
Propping up green energy
We see similar favoritism across the bigger energy spectrum. Despite President Obama's frequent touting of increased domestic oil and gas production, "federal government policies are suppressing development," says Kathleen Sgamma, Vice-President of Government and Public Affairs for the Western Energy Alliance (WEA). "Unfortunately, the federal government is standing in the way of increasing production of valuable energy resources that could spur further job creation, economic growth, and energy security." To support her comments, the WEA press release offers the following numbers: "From FY2008 to FY2011 the Bureau of Land Management offered 81% less acreage, which has resulted in a 44% drop in leasing revenue, down from $356 million to $201 million. Nationwide, royalty and leasing revenue have declined 12% from $4.2 billion to $3.7 billion." Meanwhile production and revenue on private lands increased.
Additionally, despite numerous reports regarding the positive economic impacts and environmental safety of the Keystone pipeline it has been continuously delayed-now for more than 1700 days. On Thursday, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee passed a bill that, according to the WSJ, "effectively pushes through approval of the 875-mile pipeline by eliminating the need for Mr. Obama to issue a special permit for it." Transportation committee chair Rep. Bill Shuster said: "After more than four years of bureaucratic delays, this bill will finally allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This project has been studied more than any other project of its kind."
While federal policies are suppressing traditional energy that is effective, efficient and economical, they are propping up projects that have been repeatedly found to be failures-but that benefit Democratic donors.
Through Obama's 2009 Stimulus Bill-which Democratic donors such as John Doerr, and George Soros (personally and through the Soros-funded Apollo Alliance) helped craft-nearly $100 billion dollars have been made available for green energy projects. With the help of researcher Christine Lakatos who's been working on it since 2009, I've been extensively covering the green-energy crony-corruption scandal for the past 12 months. We've found that nearly all of the Department of Energy-funded projects had meaningful political connections and many got special treatment-such as fast-tracked approvals with little scrutiny over environmental damages that would have taken any other energy company months, if not years, to get-from the Department of Interior. The policies benefitted insiders such as Treasury Secretary Jack Lewand Secretary of State John Kerry-just to name a few. To date, 25 have gone bankrupt and four are about to go under-though 29 others have various issues. Denying the dismal record, Obama's 2014 budget calls for more taxpayer dollars for green energy projects. It's scandalous.
Now that the Hill is holding hearings and investigations on Benghazi, the IRS, the AP, the EPA, and the green energy industry's not-so-green slaughter of protected species, it is time to look at the financial and regulatory favors extended to friendlies while erecting obstacles to anything or anyone they oppose-and that includes the green-energy crony-corruption scandal that could be the biggest of them all.
These six scandalous stories illustrate the standard operating procedure of the Obama White House-and, as such, there's likely to be even more. It may be too early to tell whether these scandals will "define and destroy" Barack Obama's presidency, but they are certainly a distraction to his second-term agenda and display a side the administration didn't want made public.
Pick-up this six-pack and share it with others.