What Scott Pruitt doesn't want you to know, and why it matters

Martha Roberts

Not telling the people you work for what you do at work isn’t an option available to most of us. We’re generally held accountable for our time, as it keeps us honest and demonstrates to our employers that we’re committed to our duties.

Under past EPA administrators from both parties the calendars of senior managers – including the administrator – were released to the public in a timely manner via accessible platforms. Troublingly, Scott Pruitt has ended this practice.  

We’ve only gotten information about his activities through intermittent details shared with the press, or months after the fact through time-consuming, burdensome Freedom of Information Act requests [PDF].

Without contemporaneous information on the activities and schedule of Administrator Pruitt and his senior staff, members of the public cannot have full confidence that the EPA’s leadership is working on their behalf.

Why the secrecy?

In the few months of Pruitt’s tenure, we’ve already seen ample cause for concern when it comes to how he spends his time: a steady stream of meetings with major industry, together with rollbacks that harm communities and put children’s health at risk.

Last week, we learned that Pruitt gathered with the American Petroleum Institute board of directors at the Trump Hotel early in his tenure, just weeks before carrying out a host of actions to benefit oil and gas polluters. Just one of those actions – delaying implementation of a national smog health standard – will alone result in 230,000 more asthma attacks for kids.

These actions have been taken with no meaningful public input or engagement. Meanwhile, the intermittent information we glean on Pruitt’s calendar and his schedule underscores his extensive meetings and visits with major industry.

It’s part of a larger pattern of keeping information from the public eye under this administration, from the White House not publishing visitor logs to the secrecy surrounding the Senate’s version of healthcare overhaul. Pruitt himself has a demonstrated history of using his office to promote the interests of companies allied with his political agenda; when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, he submitted a regulatory complaint to the EPA authored by Devon Energy on his own letterhead.

Ultimately, Pruitt’s lack of transparency raises serious questions about potential abuse of the EPA’s limited resources for activity that contravenes or is in serious tension with important legal and ethical requirements.

Transparency is the historical norm; this is not

The important transparency practice of sharing senior policy leaders’ schedules has a long history at the EPA.

In 1983, William Ruckelshaus – the first EPA Administrator – was brought back to lead the agency by President Ronald Reagan to restore public trust after the scandal-plagued tenure of Administrator Anne Gorsuch.

One of his first actions was to issue his “Fishbowl Memo [PDF],” which vowed that the EPA would “operate in a fishbowl” and “attempt to communicate with everyone from the environmentalists to those we regulate and we will do so as openly as possible” – and specifically committed to making his calendar publicly available. 

Administrator Lisa Jackson echoed this commitment [PDF] upon her arrival, writing that to “keep the public fully informed of my contacts with interested persons,” she would make available to the public, every day via the EPA website, “a working copy of my appointment calendar, showing meetings with members of the public.” She directed her senior staff to do the same. Administrator Gina McCarthy and Acting Administrator Catherine McCabe similarly continued this practice.

Just a glance at the EPA website immediately demonstrates that this transparency practice is no more: the respective “Senior Manager Schedules” tab on the administrator’s homepage has been deleted. 

A true back to basics approach

Pruitt has recently made a show of focusing on “EPA Originalism” and getting the agency “Back to Basics.” He should follow long-standing EPA practice and the guidance of EPA’s original administrator, William Ruckelshaus. Pruitt should make his calendar, and those of his senior leadership, widely and contemporaneously available to the public.

Fundamental transparency isn’t just tradition; it’s key to ensuring the EPA is hard at work for the American people. Sunshine remains the best disinfectant. 

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