POLITICS
10/23/2018 05:45 am ET

Emails Show ‘Cozy’ Ties Between EPA’s Air Office And Its Chief's Former Firm

Bill Wehrum pushed industry-friendly policies as he and his staff stayed in contact with his old corporate law firm.
Bill Wehrum has been criticized as the embodiment of regulatory capture, a former energy industry lawyer now advancing the in
Associated Press
Bill Wehrum has been criticized as the embodiment of regulatory capture, a former energy industry lawyer now advancing the industry's agenda at the EPA.

A trove of emails obtained by HuffPost sheds light on the ongoing relationship between the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality chief, Bill Wehrum, and people at his former law and lobbying firm. This latest instance of Trump appointees communicating with previous employers highlights the extent to which corporate interests have gained access to crucial government decision-makers and raises questions about the usefulness of President Donald Trump’s ethics rules.

Since he became assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation last November, Wehrum has been criticized as the embodiment of regulatory capture.

Wehrum, a seasoned lawyer and lobbyist at the firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, previously worked at the EPA during the George W. Bush administration. Upon returning to private practice, he fought the agency on the energy industry’s behalf. His clientele included such powerhouses as ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, Koch Industries, Dominion Energy and Enbridge.

Now, he’s back at the EPA and seeking to erase some of the hallmarks of Obama-era regulation of air pollution ― an agenda that will benefit many of Wehrum’s former clients.

A month after rejoining the EPA, Wehrum was already visiting Hunton’s Washington offices to lay out his plan for regulatory reform before the Utility Air Regulatory Group, a onetime client, and other eager listeners. The Utility Air Regulatory Group is a trade association that speaks for major energy companies and utilities such as American Electric Power and Southern Company.

But the relationship between Wehrum and his former colleagues at Hunton did not end there, according to the emails obtained by HuffPost through an open records request. Those messages show that both sides continued to communicate regularly after Wehrum’s transition to the EPA. This, despite his ethics pledge not to be involved in matters concerning his former firm and clients. Last month, under growing pressure to clarify his relationship with Hunton, he signed a formal recusal letter listing numerous ex-clients that he vowed not be involved with in “particular matters.”

Critics have pointed to many instances in which Trump’s “drain the swamp” ethics rules have proved to be toothless. The rules, announced shortly after the president’s inauguration, have repeatedly been ignored or circumvented by the granting of waivers.

Most of the emails between Wehrum and Hunton employees that were uncovered by HuffPost have been heavily redacted by the EPA, which cited the “personal information” exemption. But the unredacted communications provide a window into an ongoing relationship between the official and his former colleagues.

Hunton lawyers reached out to Wehrum often, looking to touch base and meet, attempting to glean information about EPA decisions, and ascertaining expected dates for future regulations.

While several exchanges show more casual interactions between Wehrum and lobbyists for companies like ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, others reveal former colleagues seeking inside information. In June, Hunton attorney David Landin ― who previously lobbied for one of Wehrum’s former clients, the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association ― emailed Wehrum to “catch up” on asbestos regulations, including a “problem formulation document; systematic review document; transparency rule.” Landin added, “NSSGA wants to be supportive.”

When Wehrum was at Hunton, he and Landin lobbied together for the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association on asbestos regulations. Now the EPA is in the midst of refining how it evaluates the risks posed by asbestos. The proposed new rule has come under criticism, including by scientists within the EPA, because it could potentially open the door for further uses of the known carcinogen in consumer products.

In an email earlier this year, under the subject line “Strengthening regulatory transparency rule,” Landin asked Wehrum, “How do I best get insight of what is driving this and the goals?”

On at least two other occasions, Landin tried to gain information from Wehrum about the EPA’s upcoming inventory of all chemical substances manufactured or processed in the U.S. (including imports) that are covered under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The agency updates the list, which plays an important part in regulating toxins, every six months. “Any insights that can be shared?” he asked Wehrum in one email. In another, Landin requested that Wehrum facilitate an “informal introduction” between him and other EPA officials.

Public interest advocates who were shown the emails acknowledge that loopholes in the Trump administration’s ethics rules leave a lot of gray area for assessing whether officials are technically acting properly. But even so, they say that Wehrum’s actions were highly problematic.

“Even if Wehrum is somehow abiding by the narrow definitions of his recusal letter, the appearance of these cozy relations is simply wrong,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, an EPA watchdog group. “And it’s a major part of what people don’t like about Washington. This is an unusual amount of [email] traffic and I would expect Wehrum to put distance between himself and his former colleagues, to let them know that he’s now obligated to serve the public.”

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the public interest group Public Citizen, agreed. “Those emails are very revealing of the extent of the close working relationship between the Hunton firm and Wehrum,” Holman told HuffPost. “Bill Wehrum has shown considerable disregard for conflicts of interest generally and Trump’s own unenforceable ethics rules in particular. He is supposed to recuse himself from matters affecting his former clients within the previous two years of appointment.” 

In August, Wehrum told The New York Times that he was “scrupulously complying” with the ethics rules.

“Since joining the EPA, Mr. Wehrum has understood and abided by ethics rules,” said an agency spokesperson in response to HuffPost’s request for comment. “He has screened participants in meetings held at EPA and invitations to events external to EPA and will continue to do so.”

In regards to Wehrum’s talk at his former law firm’s office, the spokesperson said, “He spoke to a group that included former clients in the audience and also included many other interested parties which follow ethics rules and the Trump pledge.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The emails also reveal that Hunton’s attempts at influence peddling extend beyond Wehrum to other top officials in the Office of Air and Radiation. Since the beginning of the year, the firm’s attorneys have arranged several meetings between air office staffers and Hunton clients ― including the Utility Air Regulatory Group and the Air Permitting Forum, which also works to advance the interests of major utilities and energy companies. 

Hunton Andrews Kurth did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

A prominent figure in these contacts is Wehrum’s senior adviser Mandy Gunasekara, a political appointee and former Republican Senate staffer.

In March, Gunasekara sent two Hunton lawyers a new EPA memo that was embargoed until the following day. The memo, titled “Project Emissions Accounting Guidance,” effectively loosened the regulations for permitting new sources of emissions from power or industrial plants. That has long been an industry goal, including for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a Hunton client that represents the interests of power generating companies.

Wehrum said at the time that the changes reflect a “common-sense interpretation” of the rules that will “remove unnecessary administrative barriers to the construction of cleaner and more efficient facilities.”

In April, Hunton attorney Colleen Doyle asked Gunasekara for “any news” on the “source aggregation issue” on behalf of building materials supplier Lehigh Hanson, a former Wehrum client. Her message referred to the industry’s push for new rules to raise the bar set in the Clean Air Act for when emission sources must be “aggregated” and counted as a single source.

Gunasekara promised Doyle that she would “check on the status and follow up.” By April 30, Wehrum had announced that the rule revision was underway.

The emails similarly detail Hunton’s lobbying on behalf of another former Wehrum client, the Brick Industry Association. Three months before his nomination to become part of Trump’s EPA, Wehrum had requested a meeting with the agency to discuss an extension for compliance with rules limiting mercury and other toxic emissions from facilities used by the brick industry. The meeting, he wrote, was to determine how to “lessen” the burden on the industry.

In February this year, Hunton lawyers brokered a meeting of Gunasekara and other officials with representatives of the Brick Industry Association. “We really need immediate relief from the December compliance deadline,” wrote an association representative. Keith Barnett, an official in the air office, responded that the EPA would “discuss these options.”

Four months later, the brick industry got its relief. In a memo from the air office’s Penny Lassiter, the EPA instructed its regional offices to consider granting the brick industry compliance extensions on a case-by-case basis.

CONVERSATIONS