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Federal Watchdog Reports EPA Ignored Ethics Rules

Federal Watchdog Reports EPA Ignored Ethics Rules
(Photo Credit: Haydn Blackey, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Environmental Protection Agency failed to comply with federal ethics rules for appointing advisory committee members, the General Accounting Office concluded this week. President Trump’s EPA skipped disclosure requirements for new committee members last year, according to the federal watchdog.

Led by Andrew Wheeler, the EPA currently manages 22 committees that advise the agency on a wide range of issues, including developing regulations and managing research programs.

However, in fiscal year 2018, the agency didn’t follow a key step in its process for appointing 20 committee members to the Science Advisory Board (SAB) and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), the report says.

“SAB is the agency’s largest committee and CASAC is responsible for, among other things, reviewing national ambient air-quality standards,” the report noted. “In addition, when reviewing the step in EPA’s appointment process related specifically to financial disclosure reporting, we found that EPA did not consistently ensure that [special government employees] appointed to advisory committees met federal financial disclosure requirements.”

The GAO also pointed out that the number of committee members affiliated with academic institutions shrank. In particular, academically affiliated members on the Science Advisory Board committee dropped from 77% on January 19, 2017 to 50% on March 31, 2018. For the Board of Scientific Counselors committee, academic members went from 65% to 20% during the same period.

J. Alfredo Gómez, director, natural resources and environment for the GAO, wrote that the agency recommends EPA direct officials responsible for appointing committee members follow a key step in its appointment process to document staff rationales for proposed membership.

In addition, the federal watchdog urged the EPA’s Ethics Office to evaluate the quality of financial disclosure reviews for the special government employees appointed to advisory committees.

Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee raised questions about EPA practices during hearing yesterday, including the president’s recent executive order to eliminate many of the committees, the Hill reported. Trump told agencies to terminate at least a third of their advisory committees by September 30, 2019.

Ethics issues are not new for the agency. EPA chief Scott Pruitt resigned in 2018 amid a number of controversies that included ethics concerns. Last month, EPA administrator Bill Wehrum stepped down amid an ongoing House Energy and Commerce Committee ethics inquiry.

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