It wouldn’t be hard today to find out what Gina McCarthy was doing on any given workweek from 2013 to 2016. The former Environmental Protection Agency administrator’s daily schedule is still posted on the department’s website, listing all “meetings attended by advocates, stakeholders, elected officials, and others outside the Agency.” So is her deputy’s schedule, as well as the schedules of every assistant and regional administrator across the EPA. The reason, according to the website, is “to increase transparency in EPA’s operations.”
Scott Pruitt, the current EPA administrator appointed by President Donald Trump, does not have an accessible public schedule. On April 7, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of it. Nearly two months later, it has not been given an assignment date. I’m not the only one who has been blocked; several other journalists have filed similar requests that have gone unfilled, as has the Center for Biological Diversity, which recently filed a lawsuit seeking the documents.
Pruitt does post his day-to-day whereabouts on Twitter, which shows that he spent most of his three months in office meeting with energy and other industry groups, as well as congressional Republicans. But that’s “not an appropriate substitute” for official documents, says Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of Open the Government, which advocates for government accountability. “It’s self-selective,” she said. “He doesn’t have to tweet all of his meetings, whereas his official public schedule is comprehensive, and able to be accessed by FOIA.”
Public appearances are also rare for the administrator, as are on-the-record briefings with journalists. When Pruitt does talk to journalists, it’s generally to friendly ones, according to E&E News, which noted earlier this month that Pruitt’s media appearances have been limited mostly to Fox News and its affiliates. (Pruitt also interviewed with a conservative North Dakota blogger, the media arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt).
It’s still early in Pruitt’s administration; it’s possible that he’s taking his time to get to know his staff and get comfortable with the press. But Pruitt has a history of evasiveness. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, he routinely slow-walked records requests, and used a private email account to conduct government business (and subsequently lied about it). Furthermore, those slow-walked records from his actual government account showed that Pruitt was hiding what The New York Times called an “unprecedented, secretive alliance” with the oil company Devon Energy, in which Pruitt allowed Devon representatives to write letters to the EPA in Pruitt’s name. In turn, Devon donated thousands to Pruitt’s election efforts.
That was years before Pruitt became the EPA administrator. What is he hiding now?
Among environmentalists, there is a strong suspicion that Pruitt is being opaque for a reason. “He simply can’t stand the heat of any actual look at his policies,” read a recent Sierra Club blog post. The Center for Biological Diversity, in suing over Pruitt’s schedule, expressed concern about what Pruitt’s lack of transparency means for taxpayers. “Americans need to know if Pruitt is still playing patty-cake with the big polluters the EPA’s supposed to protect us from,” Meg Townsend, the organization’s open government attorney, said in a statement about the lawsuit. “The agency’s refusal to release these public documents suggests Pruitt is back to cozying up to oil companies and pesticide makers, at the expense of the air we breathe and the water we drink.”
Combine that with a White House that refuses to release visitor logs, has scores of financial conflicts of interest, and is otherwise drowning in perpetual accusations of collusion and corruption, and you’ve got a recipe for high alert, at least among government accountability advocates. “There is a swathe of secrecy over the entire executive branch,” Rosenberg said. “So we’re all bit a sensitive.”
It’s not like Pruitt has joined an agency that, before his tenure, was perfectly accountable. “EPA has had issues with transparency for some time,” Townsend told me. McCarthy’s schedules were not always comprehensive; far from it. They listed only “meetings attended by advocates, stakeholders, elected officials, and others outside the Agency.” Meetings with other EPA officials were not included, nor were read-outs of said meetings. On many days, nothing was listed; on others, events were sparse. (On January 13, 2016, for example, McCarthy’s only scheduled event was Big Block of Cheese Day.)
Under President Obama, EPA did not set an example for openness, especially when it came to FOIA. In 2015, a federal judge blasted the agency for not complying with public records requests from a conservative group. As a House Oversight Committee report from 2016 noted, that judge criticized a “culture of unrepentant noncompliance” with FOIA at EPA, “which resulted in the deletion of potentially responsive records and inexplicable delays.” The report also called out EPA for hiding conversations with outside groups—particularly environmental groups—which conservatives accused EPA of colluding with. (There is, of course, a difference between an environmental protection agency having a close relationship with environmental protection interests and that same agency having a close relationship with polluters.)
For Townsend, that’s the most important difference between Pruitt’s administration and previous ones. “It’s definitely gotten much worse” because of Pruitt’s historically close relationship with industry, she said.
“The whole reason for transparency laws like FOIA is so there is a check on corruption,” Rosenberg said. “The bottom line is figuring out whose interests are being served—the public’s, or polluter’s?” Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson made the case for transparency this way: “The American people will not trust us to protect their health or their environment if they do not trust us to be transparent and inclusive in our decision-making. To earn this trust, we must conduct business with the public openly and fairly.”
Devon Energy already appears to believe Pruitt’s time as administrator will serve its interests. According to The New York Times, the oil and gas company recently stepped away from an environmental settlement it had planned to sign with the Obama administration, believing it would get a better deal from Pruitt. Pruitt hasn’t hidden that he plans to give polluters an easier time, which makes it all the more important to make sure he’s not hiding anything else.