Trump EPA Appointee Was a Coal Utility Lobbyist This Year, Senators Say

Two senators are challenging a Trump EPA appointee, saying her lobbying record appears to prevent her, under Trump’s own ethics order, from doing most of her job.

President Trump signs ethics pledge
President Donald Trump signed an ethics order on January 28, 2017, following up on a campaign promise to "drain the swamp." Questions are now being raised about some of his appointees and whether some were quietly given waivers. Credit: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

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Lawmakers are calling on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to hand over information about a key agency appointee, citing her record as an energy industry lobbyist as recently as the first quarter of this year.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent a letter to Pruitt on Tuesday, challenging his appointment of Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett as deputy associate administrator of EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations. In that role, Bennett is the agency’s primary point person and liaison with Congress and state governments.

The senators cited President Donald Trump’s executive order on ethics, writing: “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.”

Bennett worked for two years as a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents more than 900 customer-owned rural utilities. The association, whose members have been historically reliant on coal, has pushed heavily against emissions-cutting regulations, including the Clean Power Plan.

The senators say that Bennett’s appointment violates Trump’s executive order on ethics, which says appointees can’t “participate in the specific issue area” for which they lobbied in the two years prior to their appointment. Trump issued the order during his second week in office, following up on his oft-repeated campaign pledge to “drain the swamp.” Previous presidents had similar ethics orders.

The EPA and Bennett’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The letter points out that the association spent $5.3 million on lobbying during Bennett’s tenure, and that she “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.”

Prior to her position at the rural utilities association, Bennett was an energy and agriculture aid to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The appointment is the latest in a series of lobbying-related ethics problems facing Trump appointees. Critics of Pruitt have questioned his deep ties to fossil fuel companies, including his leadership in the Koch brothers-funded Rule of Law Defense Fund, which lobbied heavily against environmental regulations.  

Late last month, the director of the Office of Government Ethics challenged the Trump administration’s granting of waivers that exempt appointees from the president’s ethics pledge. On April 28, Walter M. Shaub, Jr., who was appointed to head the office by President Barack Obama in 2013, sent a request asking every executive branch to provide him a copy of any waivers by June 1.

Whitehouse and Merkley are asking for information about Bennett by June 2, including any waivers she may have signed, a signed copy of her ethics pledge and her “Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report.”