Dems request investigation of lobbyist-turned-EPA employee who met with former boss

Three Senate Democrats are requesting an investigation into a former lobbyist, now an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employee, who met with her former boss as well as members of the trade group she once worked for.

Elizabeth Bennett, who works in the external engagement office for EPA, met with both her former employer, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), and utilities that are members of the group that were seeking to change EPA policies.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) requested the EPA’s Office of Inspector General investigate, arguing those meetings likely violate ethics rules.

Bennett was on the job for more than seven months before signing a recusal from dealing with NRECA, where she was a lobbyist, but EPA said it was determined on Day One she should not be in contact with her former employer.

“She was recused or still is recused from working with NRECA, her former employer, not the members. She inquired about just that during her initial ethics briefing upon joining the agency,” said Michael Abboud, an EPA spokesman.

Democrats argue Bennett’s correspondence and actions may violate ethics rules that encourage government employees to step away from issues where their impartiality may be questioned.

The issue stems from two Missouri-based power plants run by Associated Electric Cooperative Inc. (AECI), a member of NRECA. Those facilities were hit with a notice of violation from EPA in 2011 for failing to get required permits and for failing to install the best pollution controls.

According to a timeline constructed by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, of which the three senators are members, Bennett was on the job for less than a month when she began communicating with NRECA members, setting up a visit to the two power plants by former EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt in April 2017.

“Within weeks of starting at EPA, Ms. Bennett participated in undisclosed meetings with her former employer,” the senators wrote, adding that she “facilitated and participated in substantive conversations between NRECA and EPA regarding issues of interest to NRECA, and facilitated and participated in substantive conversations regarding an electric generation facility in Missouri owned by one of NRECA’s member companies, Associated Electric Cooperative Inc.”

Once the upcoming meeting was revealed by MissouriNet, a Missouri media outlet, Bennett participated in discussions with NRECA members about how to manage the resulting press.

Bennett looped her former boss at NRECA into the discussion and directed her deputy to contact MissouriNet to “right the ship.”

“With a little direction, they might be helpful to our effort,” she said.

The next day Bennett met with her former boss at NRECA along with power plant operator AECI and Pruitt.

Abboud said the EPA had yet to receive the letter from the senators, instead learning about it through reporters.

“We will respond through the proper channels when received,” he said.

Bennett signed the Trump ethics pledge about two months into her job at EPA and signed a formal recusal from dealing with NRECA about 7 months into the job.

“Democrat members requested a written recusal statement, and Ms. Bennett complied,” Abboud said.

Abboud did not address Bennett’s meetings with NRECA but said contact with their members, doesn’t violate her ethics pledge since “a member of a trade association is not considered a ‘former employer.’ ”

A spokesperson for the Senate Environment and Public work committee disagreed.

“Our documents clearly illustrate that as an EPA employee Ms. Bennett worked directly with NRECA just weeks after leaving the trade association, so it doesn’t appear that she was ‘recused’ from working with them at the time that work took place,” the committee said in a statement to The Hill. “Regarding EPA’s defense for her work for AECI – that’s a distinction without a difference. NRECA is a trade association that advocates for the shared interests of their voting members cooperatives, one of which is AECI. These cooperatives help shape and set the agenda of NRECA’s advocacy efforts.”

Democrats have requested investigations into a number of EPA staffers, most recently William Wehrum and David Harlow.

The men came under fire for their work with the Air Permitting Forum and the Utility Air Regulatory Group — both groups included companies that both men had recused themselves from dealing with.

In responding to the allegations against Wehrum and Harlow, EPA argued the men had recused themselves from dealing with companies that were former clients — not the trade association groups those companies were a part of.