Washington, DC -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has directed to its staff to "refrain from answering" inquiries from the news media in order to "prevent EPA management from being surprised by news coverage," according to an agency memo released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Earlier this month, Bharat Mathur, the top EPA official for the six-state Mid-western region (covering the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin), issued a memo to the entire staff within the region entitled "Working with the Press." The memo, however, orders EPA not to communicate with, let alone work with, the press. Instead, all inquiries from reporters are to be routed to the EPA Office of Public Affairs.
Mathur's memo forbids employees from initiating any contact with a reporter or from responding to inquiries made by the members of the press. Even EPA employees who are designated public spokespersons on particular matters must "report their conversations" with reporters to the Office of Public Affairs.
"The ultimate sin in the Bush Administration is going off message, especially when that discordant note is authoritatively accurate," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is challenging Bush Administration non-disclosure policies for federal workers. "This policy shows the EPA political leadership's profound fear of the expertise of its own professional staff."
This new EPA non-disclosure policy –
- Overrules previous practice of allowing agency scientists or other specialists to answer questions that fall within their recognized expertise;
- Appears to violate Congressionally-enacted bans on agencies imposing any "nondisclosure policy, form, or agreement" on its employees without explicitly informing employees about their rights to reveal matters covered by statutes such as the Whistleblower Protection Act; and
- Seems designed to hide information by directing reporters away from experts and toward relatively uninformed public affairs staff.
"This non-disclosure policy is so broad that EPA employees cannot reveal where the bathrooms are located or what the time of day is to a reporter," added Ruch. "Significantly, under this policy, EPA staff can still talk to environmental groups or members of the public – just not reporters."
Similarly, in EPA's Rocky Mountain region (covering Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming), Inside EPA reports that employees have been directed not to answer any "potentially political inquiry" from the media.