Newly revealed documents show the EPA orchestrated a smear campaign to discredit the criticism of employees who left the agency as Trump-era policies took hold.
As the Trump administration's assault on science drove career civil servants to sound the alarm about what was going on during the early months of the Trump presidency, the EPA joined forces with the White House, the Republican National Committee, and right-wing media to launch a disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the departing employees, new documents reveal.
The documents, obtained through a lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), show that the EPA's press office orchestrated "distasteful disinformation campaigns directed against distinguished public servants," said PEER general counsel Paula Dinerstein.
With employees going public as they left the agency, the EPA fought back by disseminating false information in an attempt to refute the negative claims being made about the Trump-era changes at the EPA.
Two of the employees targeted by the disinformation campaign were Michael "Mike" Cox, who resigned after 25 years as a climate adviser at the EPA, and Elizabeth "Betsy" Southerland, who retired from her post as a senior executive after 30 years at the agency.
When Cox resigned in March 2017, he wrote a public letter to then-EPA Director Scott Pruitt in which he blasted the Trump administration's anti-science agenda and ripped into Pruitt for "denying fundamental climate science," making "indefensible budget cuts," "appointing political staff who are hostile to the EPA," and failing to understand "what we do at the EPA."
"The policies this Administration is advancing are contrary to what the majority of the American people, who pay our salaries, want EPA to accomplish, which are to ensure the air their children breath is safe; the land they live, play, and hunt on to be free of toxic chemicals; and the water they drink, the lakes they swim in, and the rivers they fish in to be clean," Cox wrote.
The letter was featured in an April 2017 column in the Washington Post that made clear that Cox's views "reflect the disgust and frustration among the agency employees he left behind" when he resigned. Citing interviews with remaining staffers, The Post described a workforce "demoralized" by the anti-science sentiment espoused by Trump and Pruitt.
Southerland retired four months later and released a statement denouncing recent EPA policies and actions. In it, she warned that the agency had adopted "an industry deregulation approach based on abandonment of the polluter pays principle that underlies all environmental statutes." The day after she retired, The Post interviewed Southerland and published an article describing her criticism of the agency.
Responding to the public criticism, then-EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox told the Los Angeles Times in October 2017 that "despite the faux outrage, both employees will receive their six-figure taxpayer-funded pension and we wish them the best."
When contacted by the Post, the EPA did not have an explanation for why the agency released false information about Southerland and Cox in the wake of their criticism. However, emails obtained by PEER as part of a lawsuit give an indication of what EPA leadership was thinking at the time.
As one EPA representative wrote in an email describing their approach to dealing with Southerland's criticism, "we wanted to get in front of it all instead of having another controversy like the Mike Cox stuff."
The documents also reveal an extensive effort to dig up information about the former employees that could be used to discredit their critical public statements. They also show that the EPA reached out to news outlets that might be sympathetic, and even involved the Republican National Committee's "war room" in the orchestrated smear campaign against the two employees.
At one point, Wilcox — the former EPA spokesperson — sent a "pitch" to the right-wing "Hot Air" blog, which ended up publishing an article featuring many of the talking points Wilcox suggested. The article, which was then circulated by the RNC's "war room," disparagingly suggested that Southerland should "[turn] down all those sweet taxpayer funded retirement benefits" if she was really that unhappy with the EPA.
"These documents confirm what I suspected: Political appointees in the Administrator's Office decided to discredit me as soon as my retirement speech was publicly released," Southerland said.
While miscalculating the pension payments earned by Southerland and Cox may seem like an oversight, in this case it appears to be part of an intentional effort to spread disinformation to reduce the impact of their criticism.
"EPA’s gross miscalculation of the retirement benefits of Dr. Southerland makes one wonder if this is yet another attack on career SES [Senior Executive Service] and an attempt to influence public perceptions about federal workers as being overpaid and pampered," Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, told The Post. "Calculating retirement benefits is a straightforward, easily understood formula that all agency human resource offices can do accurately within minutes."
Unfortunately for those trying to smear the two former employees, the EPA ended up discrediting itself as soon as Pruitt took the reigns. His scandal-plagued tenure at the EPA show that everything Southerland and Cox criticized about his leadership was true — and as these new documents reveal, even an orchestrated disinformation campaign couldn't cover it up.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.