05.16.17

Whitehouse, Merkley Ask How EPA Appointee Could Possibly Do Her Job Given Extensive Ethics Conflicts

Federal lobbyist selected to run EPA office lobbied on long list of EPA issues

Washington, DC – Today, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) sent a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt requesting information on an EPA appointee who appears to be unable to perform virtually any of the duties of the job due to her ethics conflicts.

The letter concerns Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett, who has been appointed to serve as Deputy Associate Administrator of EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations.  Bennett is a former lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), where, according to NRECA’s lobbying disclosure forms, she lobbied on a wide range of EPA  issues for the past two years.  The Trump administration’s Ethics Pledge, which must be signed by all appointees, prohibits appointees who were lobbyists from “participat[ing] in any particular matter on which [they] lobbied within the 2 years before the date of [their] appointment or participate in the specific issue area in which that particular matter falls.”  Her lobbying work, therefore, would make it virtually impossible to do her job and comply with the ethics pledge.

“We do not see how Ms. Bennett can perform her job consistent with the limitations of the Ethics Pledge,” write the Senators.  “Because of her activities as a registered federal lobbyist she cannot work on legislation, communicate with Congress, or coordinate and monitor regional, state and local responses to a wide-range of major issues faced by EPA.  Even if EPA were to determine some small subset of issues from which Ms. Bennett’s prior lobbying does not disqualify her, installing someone who has lobbied for an organization that has attacked EPA’s efforts under both Republican and Democratic administrations as a public liaison for EPA suggests you have little regard for EPA’s standing and reputation before Congress or the communities in which it works to protect public health.”

Full text of the letter is below.  A PDF copy, with appendices, is available here.

May 16, 2017 

The Honorable Scott Pruitt
Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C.  20460

Dear Administrator Pruitt:

We write with concerns over your decision to appoint Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett as Deputy Associate Administrator for Intergovernmental Relations in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations (OCIR).  It is not apparent how Ms. Bennett can serve in this position consistent with the requirements of Executive Order 13770, “Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Employees.” 

Executive Order 13770 requires “[e]very appointee in every executive agency appointed on or after January 20, 2017” to sign and be “contractually committed to” an “Ethics Pledge.”[1]  The Ethics Pledge prevents appointees from “participat[ing] in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to [their] former employer or former clients” for the first two years after their appointment.[2]  Appointees who were registered lobbyists during the two years before the date of their appointment are prohibited from “participat[ing] in any particular matter on which [they] lobbied within the 2 years before the date of [their] appointment or participate in the specific issue area in which that particular matter falls.”[3] 

According to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), “specific issue area” as used in the E.O. 13770 is a “particular matter of general applicability” which requires an appointee to be recused from all aspects of a matter on which he or she previously lobbied.[4]  For example:

An appointee was a registered lobbyist during the two-year period before she entered government.  In that capacity, she lobbied her agency against a proposed regulation focused on a specific industry.  Her lobbying was limited to a specific section of the regulation affecting her client.  Her recusal obligation as an appointee is not limited to the section of the regulation on which she lobbied, nor is it limited to the application of the regulation to her former client.  Instead, she must recuse for two years from development and implementation of the entire regulation, subsequent interpretation of the regulation, and application of the regulation in individual cases.[5]

You have appointed Ms. Bennett as Deputy Associate Administrator for Intergovernmental Relations in EPA’s OCIR.  According to EPA’s website, OCIR “serves as EPA’s principal point of contact with Congress, states and local governments.”[6]  OCIR personnel are often the public face of EPA, and are expected to be able to communicate about a range of EPA issues to Congress and state and local governments.  According to EPA’s website, staff at OCIR:

  • Assists, develops and implements the legislative agenda for the agency, including legislative initiatives and proposals;
  • Leads EPA in the review of legislation; coordinates EPA’s formal positions and technical assistance to Congress; and monitors all relevant legislative actions (e.g., bills, reports, regulations) related to EPA programs;
  • Facilitates communication of the agency’s priorities and policies to Congress;
  • Coordinates agency appearances at Congressional hearings and manages associated testimony;
  • Leads the development and implementation of the National Environmental Performance Partnership System between EPA and the states;
  • Manages and monitors environmental issues with both national associations and individual state and local governments;
  • Manages the agency’s congressional and gubernatorial correspondence process;
  • Monitors resources and coordinates policy for the agency’s Regional science and technology (RS&T) organizations;
  • Coordinates and maintains the Lead Region Process, which enhances Regional participation in agency decision-making; and
  • Coordinates logistics, agendas, and subject matter for routine, special, and “hot issue” meetings and conference calls of EPA and Regional senior leaders.[7]

Prior to being appointed, Ms. Bennett was Senior Principal for Government Affairs at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) where she was a registered lobbyist for the past eight quarters, including the first quarter of 2017.  NRECA has a long track record of opposing EPA’s health and environmental protections including those Ms. Bennett covered as a lobbyist.   NRECA has been involved in at least seven EPA cases and commented on dozens of rules since 2007 (see Appendix A).  During the eight quarters that Ms. Bennett worked for NRECA, it spent over $5.3 million on lobbying activities.  Ms. Bennett specifically lobbied on a broad set of EPA matters, including EPA’s Clean Power Plan and New Source Performance Standard, Clean Water Rule, ozone standard, EPA enforcement, pesticides bills, budget resolutions, and appropriations bills (see Appendix B). 

We do not see how Ms. Bennett can perform her job consistent with the limitations of the Ethics Pledge.  Because of her activities as a registered federal lobbyist, she cannot work on legislation, communicate with Congress, or coordinate and monitor regional, state and local responses to a wide-range of major issues faced by EPA.  Even if EPA were to determine some small subset of issues from which Ms. Bennett’s prior lobbying does not disqualify her, installing someone who has lobbied for an organization that has attacked EPA’s efforts under both Republican and Democratic administrations as a public liaison for EPA suggests you have little regard for EPA’s standing and reputation before Congress or the communities in which it works to protect public health.   

Considering NRECA and Ms. Bennett’s engagement with EPA has been so extensive, we respectfully request the following information about Ms. Bennett by Friday, June 2:

  • Ms. Bennett’s Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report, other OGE Form 201 Covered Records, and any supplemental material.
  • Lists of all issues Ms. Bennett has worked on, is permitted to work on, and is prohibited from working on. 
  • Any ethics agreements, recusals, waivers, or other documentation pertaining to which issues Ms. Bennett can and cannot work on.
  • Ms. Bennett’s counseling notes, emails, and any other communication between Ms. Bennett and EPA’s Ethics Office and OGE. 
  • Names and title of all employees Ms. Bennett supervises and a list of the issues they work on. 
  • A copy of Ms. Bennet’s signed “Ethics Pledge.”

###