For Immediate Release: Jul 26, 2018
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Autopsy of Toxic EPA Press Office
Documents Depict Tax-Supported War Room Engaged in Character Assassination
Washington, DC — The Office of Public Affairs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ran a nasty fake news factory under then-Administrator Scott Pruitt, according to emails obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) through a lawsuit. The documents reflect efforts by the EPA press office to discredit employees who sounded the alarm as they left the agency.
On July 31, 2017, Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, a PhD in Environmental Science and Engineering, retired from EPA, having served as a senior executive in both the Water and Superfund programs, during her thirty-year career. As she retired, she issued a statement decrying recent EPA actions that put public health and the environment at greater risk, citing “an industry deregulation approach based on abandonment of the polluter pays principle that underlies all environmental statutes.”
Immediately, EPA’s Office of Public Affairs swung into action, trying to spin reporters by questioning both the veracity of Dr. Southerland’s statements and her motivation for making them. EPA had also tried to smear Michael Cox, a climate advisor, who spoke out when he retired. One EPA press rep explained their aggressive approach on Southerland, writing “we wanted to get in front of it all instead of having another controversy like the Mike Cox stuff.”
One element of their Southerland campaign was falsely stating that she walked away with a “six-figure taxpayer-funded pension.” This canard was based on the EPA press people obtaining Southerland’s salary information and choosing the year she received the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, an honor less than 1% of senior managers ever receive, as part of her base salary. Then, the EPA flaks untruthfully claimed that federal retirees after 20 years of service receive their full salary for a lifetime.
“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,” said Dr. Southerland, noting that EPA even involved the Republican National Committee “war room.” “I remain proud of my service at EPA and fervently hope that it will emerge from the current nightmare as an even stronger agent for public health and environmental protection.”
Most of the press aides in the emails (Liz Bowman, Jahan Wilcox, and Samantha Dravis from EPA and Kelly Love, Assistant White House press Secretary) have left government service this year. It remains to be seen if the press operation under acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will be as rabid.
“These records detail distasteful disinformation campaigns directed against distinguished public servants, but the agency withheld scores of what we presume are even sleazier revelations, claiming deliberative privilege,” stated PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who represented Dr. Southerland in a lawsuit filed against EPA under both the Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act to disclose all communications about her following her retirement. “Fortunately, no amount of phony spin could mask what a horror show Scott Pruitt’s EPA tenure was.”