Legal opinion states EPA violated grassroots lobbying laws

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A legal opinion by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violated restrictions on using appropriations for grassroots lobbying and propaganda purposes.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, requested the GAO’s opinion regarding the EPA’s use of social media in association with the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rulemaking during fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The GAO responded to the request in a letter dated Dec. 14 that summarizes how the EPA used appropriations for prohibited purposes.

The letter cites Sections 715 and 718 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, which prohibits the use of EPA’s appropriations for unauthorized publicity or propaganda purposes and indirect or grassroots lobbying in support of or opposition to pending legislation. 

The letter states the EPA engaged in covert propaganda and listed social media campaigns launched on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Thunderclap as examples of using appropriations for prohibited purposes. 

“The GAO report summed up nicely how the EPA used a battle-hardened political operative like Thomas Reynolds to take on what was supposed to be an apolitical matter,” William Rodger, American Farm Bureau Federation director of policy communications, told Crop Protection News. “It was a natural outgrowth of the democratic process: When government seeks to predetermine the results of what’s supposed to be a fair and unbiased proceeding, ordinary citizens take notice and complain to their elected representatives.”

The White House recently appointed Reynolds, an EPA communications strategist, to a new position focused on advancing President Barack Obama’s global warming messaging. Reynolds was in his position with the EPA and involved with the social media campaigns referenced in the letter from the GAO.

A Thunderclap campaign that reached 1.8 million people is just one of the social media promotions in question. Thunderclap is a new social media platform that allows many people to share the same message simultaneously.

“Clean water is important to me,” the message said. “I support EPA’s efforts to protect it for my health, my family, and my community.”

The GAO said the campaign violated federal laws because as the message was shared around the World Wide Web, users did not know the EPA wrote the message, classifying it as covert propaganda.

Another example is a blog post by an EPA public affairs officer, who said he was a surfer and did not want to get sick from pollution. The post encouraged viewers to “Take Action” and “tell Congress to stop interfering with your right to clean water.”

The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are hoping to redefine the “waters of the U.S.” that are federally regulated under the Clean Water Act. The rule is facing litigation in courts across the country. The American Farm Bureau Federation is leading one of those lawsuits to overturn WOTUS, and is joined by 21 states, 39 members of congress and many industry groups. 

“Our chief desire is that Congress will act and overturn the rule altogether,” Rodger said. “We believe we will prevail in court, but that will likely take five years or more as we expect this case will finally end up at the Supreme Court.”

Organizations in this story

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 1200 Pennsylvania Ave NW Washington, DC 20460

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