No More Meetings – With Anyone, Ever

by Greg Walcher on October 24, 2017

The front-page headline screamed in 40-point type: “EPA chief Pruitt met with many corporate execs. Then he made decisions in their favor.” A rare two-sentence headline!

The Washington Post has broken the ultimate scandal, perhaps eclipsing even its own now-legendary 1973 Watergate coverage. Channeling Watergate’s famous duo of Woodward and Bernstein, this new scandal was also exposed by an investigative team. As the story unfolded, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt “has met regularly with corporate executives… in several instances shortly before making decisions favorable to those interest groups, according to a copy of his schedule obtained by the Washington Post.”

What a coup for the newspaper, obtaining a secret leaked copy of the Administrator’s actual schedule. Even more stunning, the schedule shows that he has the audacity to meet with people whose livelihoods may be affected by his decisions – people whose business is energy, minerals, and manufacturing automobiles. Worse yet, he might actually agree with them sometimes.

The article claims the public release of Pruitt’s schedule “adds to understanding about how he makes decisions.” I am traumatized to learn that someone in such a position of tremendous authority – with the power literally to make or break businesses, put thousands of people out of work, and cost the economy billions – might actually meet the people involved.

Undoubtedly, it is a striking departure from previous EPA Administrators, at least the last two. Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy both spent much more of their time meeting with the leaders of national environmental organizations. And “then making decisions in their favor.”

One example in the newspaper exposé mentions an Alaska company called Pebble Mine, which has been trying to build a gold, copper, and molybdenum mine for years. In 2014, after meeting and corresponding with a number of major environmental groups, then EPA Administrator McCarthy blocked the mine’s permits. This year, Mr. Pruitt met the company’s owners, as well as Alaska’s Senior Senator, to discuss the impasse. Eventually, a deal was reached which at least allows the firm to apply for the permits.

There were several other similar business meetings, which we are told constitute an outrageous scandal. But do they? These seasoned veteran reporters should know. One “has covered the White House, China, economic policy and diplomacy” for the paper; and the other “is the Washington Post’s senior national affairs correspondent, covering how the new administration is transforming a range of U.S. policies and the federal government itself.”

Here is the problem. High-placed Administration officials in both parties, in at least the last 45 Presidential Administrations since 1789, have routinely met with people, and sometimes with business owners. Leaders tend to meet more often with people on their side, and they often agree with the sentiments of their strongest allies (that’s why they’re called allies).

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy sometimes met with people, too.

This disgraceful tendency to meet with one’s allies reached such a feverish pitch in the last Administration that it triggered a Senate investigation. The panel found that Ms. McCarthy had met with officials from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the largest environmental groups, just eight days after a power plant regulation process began. The NRDC official had himself been an appointee in the Clinton Administration, and McCarthy had once promised in an email she would “never say no to a meeting.” Of course, he got the regulation he wanted, though no newspaper accused Ms. McCarthy of making the decision solely because of the meeting.

Ms. McCarthy even scheduled special briefings for her friends in the environmental industry, such as one in June, 2014, to give them a heads-up on the EPA’s ambitious plan to tackle climate change. That briefing included NRDC, the Environmental Defense Fund, Environment America, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club.

In 2012 and 2014, independent reports from the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, based on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, alleged numerous examples of “improper collusion between environmental pressure groups and the EPA.” Specifically, it accused those groups of helping “steer EPA regulations and permitting decisions, and providing advocacy materials for use by former colleagues now inside the EPA.”

Well, I for one have had it with these officials meeting with stakeholders and others who have strong opinions about things. Elected and appointed officials should make objective decisions, in a complete vacuum, without all the noise and distraction of facts and opinions – especially from their allies. We should avoid all future scandals with a short and simple policy – no more meetings with anyone, ever.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel October 13, 2017.

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