I know, I know… you’d be shocked beyond belief if I told you that a trusted and esteemed government organization like the Environment Protection Agency was in the news for having done something bad. But amazing as the news may be, the New York Times is reporting that a government audit found the EPA may have broken the law with their endless politicking in support of the administration’s changes to the clean water rules. And this isn’t a minor charge, either.
The Environmental Protection Agency engaged in “covert propaganda” and violated federal law when it blitzed social media to urge the public to back an Obama administration rule intended to better protect the nation’s streams and surface waters, congressional auditors have concluded.
The ruling by the Government Accountability Office, which opened its investigation after a report on the agency’s practices in The New York Times, drew a bright line for federal agencies experimenting with social media about the perils of going too far to push a cause. Federal laws prohibit agencies from engaging in lobbying and propaganda.
“I can guarantee you that general counsels across the federal government are reading this report,” said Michael Eric Hertz, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York who has written on social media and the government.
For their part, the EPA is obviously claiming that they didn’t do anything wrong and were simply trying to, stay connected and inform people across the country about our activities. That’s where any potential criminal charges may become dicey. It’s absolutely true that part of the accepted mission of all federal agencies is to keep the public informed. After all, they work for us and they’re suppose to be transparent in terms of what they’re up to. But at what point does “informing” the public morph into attempts to sway and lobby the public over a contentious program?
Republicans are currently trying to stop the implementation of the new Waters of the United States clean-water rule by way of an attachment to the omnibus spending bill. The EPA ran an aggressive new media campaign on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, trumpeting the rule changes as ways to provide clean drinking water, with heavily implied messages about not letting opponents stop the plan. But if they don’t actually come out and tell people to vote a particular way or contact their congressmen (which they apparently did not) did they actually engage in “covert activity intended to influence the American public” in violation of the law?
That would be a question for the courts to decide, but it would require someone with standing to actually mange to get the case in front of a judge. Can that happen? Color me dubious in the current climate on the Hill, but it’s one more example of the EPA either blurring or crossing the lines. Gina McCarthy should really be impeached since the President clearly has no intention of dumping her.