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The EPA is letting key staffers keep their political consulting side gigs

It’s “a secret revolving back door in the dark alley.”

EPA headquarters Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Rules in the Trump administration, it seems, are meant to be broken.

And some of those rules being broken are ones President Donald Trump created himself.

Shortly after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order barring lobbyists and consultants with private clients from working for government, some for five years, some for the rest of their lives.

But we learned Thursday from the Associated Press that at least 24 senior officials in the White House and executive branch agencies have received exemptions to this rule. And dozens more workers from private industries have gone on to work for the agencies that regulate them.

The influence of the private sector over the public sector is especially stark at the Environmental Protection Agency. The AP tracked 59 key positions at the agency and reports that one-third previously worked as registered lobbyists and attorneys for clients that are regulated by the EPA, like oil and gas companies.

And earlier this week, we learned (also from AP) that at least two political appointees at the EPA received permission from the agency’s ethics review board to continue getting paid for work outside of their government jobs.

John Konkus, a former Republican political consultant and a senior official in the EPA’s public affairs division, received permission from the agency’s ethics review board to keep working for at least two undisclosed outside clients.

As Michael Biesecker reported for AP, Konkus gets roughly $145,000 for his work at the EPA and is getting paid for outside work. We don’t know how much he received for the side gig, but federal law limits income from extracurricular activities to $27,765.

Konkus, who described climate change as “the double C-word,” has a say in millions of dollars in grant approvals from the EPA and faces allegations of approving politically motivated budget cuts to programs.

Another former Republican political consultant, Patrick Davis, who works at an EPA regional office in Colorado, received an exemption last year so that he could continue getting paid for his work as the sales director for Telephone Town Hall Meeting, which provides services like robocalls to political campaigns. He collects a salary of $161,000 at the EPA but also faces the same cap on income from his other gig.

These exemptions were revealed by House Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee this week. The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

The problem here is that federal rules require all political employees to disclose their financial holdings and most to give up their outside jobs. Exemptions can be made for limited work outside of government, but they are meant only for “extraordinary circumstances,” like recruiting an urgently needed expert to advise the government, according to Norman Eisen, who served as an ethics adviser to President Barack Obama.

Eisen told me that he forced staffers to quit even unpaid nonprofit work while under his tenure.

The Obama administration granted nearly 70 ethics waivers over eight years to senior officials, but, according to the AP, those were “generally more narrowly focused and offered a fuller legal explanation for why the waiver was granted.”

The waivers granted under the Trump administration, by contrast, are much lighter on details.

“Based on what we know, it’s very troubling,” Eisen said.

The EPA’s decision to grant these exemptions seems especially hypocritical given the rationale it used when it purged scientists from its advisory committees last year. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reasoned that scientists who advise the agency shouldn’t also receive research funds from the agency. This logic rules out vast numbers of scientists who work at universities and regional environmental groups.

When he made the announcement last October, Pruitt invoked the Bible, saying that “the ‘Joshua Principle’ that as it relates to grants to this agency, you are going to have to choose either service on the committee to provide counsel to us in an independent fashion or you can choose grants, but you cannot do both.”

But many of the advisers he recruited to fill the vacancies on science advisory committees worked for state agencies that received EPA money (and agencies that, like Pruitt, have sued the EPA to block environmental rules — another conflict of interest).

Senior officials with secret side gigs aren’t the only questionable employment practice at the EPA

Pruitt picked banker Albert Kelly to run the EPA’s Superfund program for cleaning up highly hazardous waste. Kelly ran the bank that loaned money to Pruitt to buy a house and a share of a minor league baseball team. Shortly before Kelly was hired, he was fined $125,000 by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for violating the law and was later banned for life from banking. He also holds stock in a company responsible for a major environmental contamination.

Meanwhile, Michael Dourson, who worked as a consultant for the chemicals industry and was nominated to run the EPA’s chemical safety division, started working at the agency as an adviser before he was confirmed by the Senate. His nomination was later withdrawn.

All the while, many of the EPA’s new political staffers are coming directly from jobs in the fossil fuel and chemical industries, sectors that the agency is supposed to oversee. The volume of these conflicting loyalties coupled with a lack of transparency adds up to regulatory capture on an unprecedented scale, according to Eisen.

“It’s worse than a revolving door,” he said. “This is a secret revolving back door in the dark alley behind the building.”