Acting Head of EPA Office Admits to Ethics Violation

Watchdog files complaint with Agency Inspector General over actions revealed in FOIA documents

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust filed a complaint with the Inspector General at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alleging a high-ranking official at EPA may have violated his ethics obligations. Documents obtained via FOIA from PPT and other organizations reveal Acting Associate Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Joseph Goffman may have improperly exerted his influence to arrange a high-level meeting with Agency personnel on behalf of his former employer. 

Prior to joining EPA, Mr. Goffman was the Executive Director of the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School, a post he held after serving as an attorney at EPA from 2009-2017 during the Obama administration. Less than two weeks after signing his Recusal Statement on April 8, 2021, he took an action that, by his own admission, “my recusal bars me from” – recommending to a subordinate that they take a meeting with Harvard – and which caused ethics officials to have to “unring the bell.” As the EPA’s top ethics official described:

[P]ursuant to Executive Order 13989, Section 2 and the ethics pledge that you signed you agreed not to “participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to [your] former employer” for two years. Despite this restriction, upon receiving an email from an employee of Harvard University, you did not immediately recuse. Instead, you forwarded the email to a subordinate with a recommendation that the Agency should involve itself, and your subordinate agreed.

These actions appear to constitute a blatant violation of ethics rules. As a high-ranking official on his second stint with the agency, Mr. Goffman should be well aware of the ethics regulations governing political appointees. He had signed his Recusal Statement less than two weeks before the apparent violation. The email he received very clearly reveals that, not only would primarily Harvard staff be involved in the meeting, but the meeting requester’s signature indicates she is with Harvard. Furthermore, the requester appeared on Goffman’s podcast several times while he was at Harvard.

“The American public deserves to be assured political appointees are carrying out their duties in an ethical, impartial manner without favoritism toward their former employers,” stated Protect the Public’s Trust Director, Michael Chamberlain. “Asking for forgiveness after the fact, or ‘unringing a bell,’ runs completely counter to the letter, not just the spirit, of the ethics rules. Sadly, as EPA records become available to the public, it appears this is just one example of EPA’s leadership operating in the gray areas, and beyond, of their ethics obligations. The American public has every right to expect more from an administration that has anointed itself the most ethical in history.”

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BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The American public deserves to know:

  1. Whether or not Mr. Goffman violated the Biden Ethics Pledge when he directed his subordinate to schedule a meeting with his former colleague and employer; 
  2. Whether or not Mr. Goffman violated any other ethics regulations by acting in his official capacity to urge a subordinate to accept a meeting request with his former employer; 
  3. Whether Mr. Goffman received additional training or admonishment beyond the immediate email from ethics officials confirming his violation;
  4. Whether Mr. Goffman informed his supervisor in writing, and whether those communications led to any disciplinary action;
  5. Whether or not the meeting requested by Mr. Goffman’s former colleagues ultimately took place; 
  6. If the meeting did take place, what the topics/particular matters that were discussed, the request(s) made by outside parties, the attendees, and any communications before or after the meeting;
  7. Whether Mr. Goffman’s action encouraging his subordinate to schedule a meeting with his former employer constitutes preferential treatment for the former employer and misuse of his government position;
  8. Whether or not Mr. Goffman has since had correspondence with his former employer, participated in any particular matters involving his former employer, or has committed another violation or attempted to violate his ethics obligations.