Cummings slams politically charged Trump EPA program. Turns out to be Obama EPA program

On Friday evening there was a story at Politico which didn’t seem to gain much traction, what with all of the Trump activity going on. Congressman Elija Cummings (D-Md) is the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee and he’s demanding that committee chair Trey Gowdy issue a subpoena to the EPA over their handling of both FOIA submissions and requests from Congress for documents, saying that Scott Pruitt’s administration was “screening” requests based on political sensitivity. (More background coverage available at Government Executive.) These were all part of a skyrocketing number of such requests the EPA has received under the Trump administration, but we’ll have more on that below. So what was this new, secret program to allow the EPA to “screen” incoming requests?

Hot Air has received a copy of both Cummings’ letter to the EPA as well as the response sent to Cummings this weekend from Kevin Minoli, EPA’s Principal Deputy General Counsel and Designated Ethics Official. First, let’s have a look at the introductory portion of Cummings letter and what he’s clearly implying with his demand for a subpoena. (Click on thumbnail for full image. Emphasis added.)

I am writing to request that you issue a subpoena to compel the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to produce documents it has failed to produce about policies implemented by ousted Administrator Scott Pruitt to withhold information about his tenure in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. On June 11, 2018, I wrote to former Administrator Pruitt requesting that he produce documents by June 25, 2018.

EPA’s only response to date has been an email from an EPA official providing a link to documents already publicly released under FOIA—some of the same documents I already cited in my request letter. Information recently obtained by the Committee confirms that EPA is using a process in which political appointees review FOIA requests and hand select requests to be processed by a different team if they are complex or “politically charged.” Responses to FOIAs are at times deliberately delayed, and political appointees review responses to FOIA requests before they are released. In at least one instance, EPA gave favorable treatment to an industry lobbyist.

Cummings goes on from there to discuss his committee’s discovery of something called a “FEAT Team” at the EPA which reviews incoming requests. So what was sort of devious political chicanery was Scott Pruitt up to and what is this mysterious new “FEAT Team” doing? In the response from the EPA we learn the full history of FEAT, including why it was put in place.

As it turns out, it was a program set up more than five years ago under the Obama administration to prioritize the handling of such information requests when they too fell far behind in responses. And Obama’s crew was running late with far fewer requests to handle. It turns out that since President Trump took office, FOIA requests to the EPA (including many fishing expeditions from the media) have increased by a whopping 400%. Here’s the key, introductory portion of the letter from Kevin Minoli. (Again, click for full size. Emphasis added.)

Dear Ranking Member Cummings:

In a letter from you in your capacity as the Ranking Member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to the Honorable Trey Gowdy, Chairman of the Committee, you raised questions regarding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) process for responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The letter highlighted the role of EPA’s FOIA Expert Assistance Team (FEAT) in that process. I write to provide information as to the origin and role of the FEAT, and to offer to brief Committee staff on the same.

In 2013, EPA’s FOIA program was routinely the subject of litigation, public criticism, and Congressional oversight (including oversight by this Committee). Then-Acting Administrator of EPA Robert Perciasepe turned to me and my counterpart in the Office of Environmental Information and gave us the following task: make the FOIA process at EPA better. In response, the FOIA Expert Assistance Team, affectionately known as the FEAT, was created. The purpose of the FEAT was to provide strategic direction and project management assistance on the most challenging or complex FOIA requests. Here is how the FEAT was described in its original Functional Statement:

Under the supervision of the Senior Counsel, this unit provides legal counsel on all issues pertaining to selected FOIA requests that have been determined to be [the] most complex and/or potentially sensitive requests received across the Agency. Utilizing an extraordinary breadth of FOIA knowledge and experience, together with in-depth organizational and external awareness, the team provides advice and guidance to the highest echelons of management within the Agency.

So this is the program that Cummings has “discovered” and determined to be involved in assigning special handling to requests deemed “complex or politically sensitive.” Turns out that’s exactly why the program was set up… by Barack Obama’s EPA. The letter goes on to cite various incidents where they were handling requests carefully and with great sensitivity. These include FOIA requests relating to Bristol Bay, Alaska, the spill of polluted water from Gold King Mine, EPA’s response to Volkswagen’s use of defeat devices and drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan.

Gee, do you think any of those issues were “politically charged” and in need of special handling? But somehow nobody seemed to care that the Obama administration EPA was lagging in response time on those subjects even though they were only facing one quarter the number of requests received while Scott Pruitt was in charge. As to that massive influx of oversight and FOIA requests, we’ll have more details on that coming in a later article. (Ironically I’m waiting on a response for more information. Insert LOL gif here.) But at any rate, the mystery that Congressman Cummings was investigating has been solved.