Watchdog Announces New Additions to Watchlist; EPA Mum on Conflicts

These top-level staff at EPA are part of an overwhelming wave of powerful special interest group placements while agency stifles public records requests

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust announced two new additions to its watchlist of powerful Executive Branch officials whose potential conflicts of interest substantially overlap with their assigned roles. Even as an “overlap of recusals” is forcing ethics officials to grant waivers to ethics rules to allow the agency to properly function, EPA is impeding requests for access to public records regarding high-level officials.

Alejandra Nunez and Dimple Chaudhary are the latest Executive Branch officials to appear on the radar of ethics watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust. Ms. Nunez and Ms. Chaudhary come to the Environmental Protection Agency from large special interest groups involved in broad swaths of litigation and challenges against EPA. Each has assumed leadership in offices that oversee matters their former employers were deeply involved in.

Ms. Chaudhary, Ms. Nunez, Marianne Engelman-Lado and Tomás Elias Carbonell (PPT bio), are part of the enormous wave of EPA leadership roles being filled by leaders from special interest groups with assets approaching a half-billion dollars, budgets in the hundreds of millions and portfolios covering virtually every matter at EPA. This wave is undoubtedly taxing career ethics staff who must navigate the maze of conflicts the new appointees’ prior work brings while still ensuring the agency is able to operate. In fact, Ms. Engelman-Lado was granted a waiver to certain ethics restrictions in part because an “overlap of recusals” among political appointees in her office stood in the way of its effective operation.

Yet despite the recognized potential for conflicts, EPA has taken an unusual step of denying fee waiver requests for PPT’s outstanding Freedom of Information Act submissions, including those for documents related to these officials’ ethics disclosures, recusals and waivers – something no other Executive Branch agency has done. These denials are forcing PPT into an extended administrative process and delaying our ability to inform the public about the manner in which EPA is managing the mass of potential conflicts of its high-ranking officials. PPT is currently assessing EPA’s questionable legal reasoning and evaluating our options to determine how to proceed.

“In light of their most recent positions with large, wealthy and powerful special interest groups engaged in a massive quantity of matters with the EPA, the roles of Ms. Chaudhary and Ms. Nunez would appear to create enormous potential conflicts of interest,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Federal ethics watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust. “These are not the only officials at EPA who have shown up on our radar. With the American public’s trust in government already at an all-time low, they have every right to demand answers from these and other EPA officials to the questions raised concerning how the agency will be able to function with the raft of potential conflicts its leadership bring to their roles. The agency’s response to our FOIA requests only heightens our concern.” 

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BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The American public deserves answers to ethics questions related to the work of the former employers of high-level EPA staff, including:

  1. Has Ms. Nunez provided the EPA’s Ethics Office with a complete list of all cases and particular matters she participated in while at Sierra Club, as well as any other particular matters her former employer is involved in that come under EPA’s jurisdiction?
  2. Ms. Nunez has made recent public statements on behalf of EPA regarding vehicle emissions policy, an issue she was actively involved in while at Sierra Club. Has she received ethics guidance and/or a waiver for any matters involving her former employer?
  3. Given Sierra Club’s involvement in varied legal and regulatory challenges to most major actions of the Trump EPA, what particular matters is Ms. Nunez prohibited from participating in as DAA for Mobile Sources?
  4. If Ms. Nunez has received ethics guidance when will her written ethics guidance be provided to the public?
  5. Are all of the companies and individuals on NRDC’s highly influential board of trustees properly characterized as covered relationships on Ms. Chaudhary’s recusal list?
  6. Given NRDC’s involvement in legal and regulatory challenges to most major actions of the Trump EPA, how will Ms. Chaudhary carry out her official duties while maintaining her ethics obligations?
  7. How can Ms. Chaudhary have served as the second in command for NRDC’s litigation team while being involved in only four active cases before the agency? How did the EPA Ethics Office advise her regarding other NRDC cases involving EPA?