A Year of Seeking Transparency

A Year of Seeking Transparency

  • May 3, 2022

Records received from PPT’s initial FOIA request revealed possible violation, employment ties to hostile government

One year ago today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust submitted its first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The request, to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), revealed a wealth of interesting information.

Among the revelations contained in the documents was EPA leadership’s decision to allow a political appointee to maintain an employment relationship with an instrumentality of the Chinese government while working at the agency. Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science Policy Christopher Frey was permitted to merely take a leave of absence from an adjunct professorship at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), rather than resigning his position while serving at EPA. Dr. Frey was subsequently nominated to lead the Office of Research and Development (ORD) at EPA and, during a hearing, pledged to resign from HKUST upon confirmation. It still remains unclear which senior political official initially approved his continued employment relationship with an instrument of the Chinese government.

In other records released in response to the same request, PPT discovered an admitted ethics violation by a senior EPA official, which resulted in a complaint by PPT to EPA’s Inspector General. Less than two weeks after signing his Recusal Statement, Acting Associate Administrator for The Office of Air and Radiation, Joe Goffman, took an action that, by his own admission, “my recusal bars me from.” Mr. Goffman recommended to a subordinate that they take a meeting with a group from Harvard, his former employer, and which caused ethics officials to have to “unring the bell,” in response to Mr. Goffman’s request to “cure this violation.”

The documents also revealed that the EPA’s Principal Deputy General Counsel was granted the ability “to make policy decisions as to whether or not to continue or pursue litigation,” for more than three dozen cases involving her former employer, the State of Massachusetts, some of which she may have participated in personally and substantially. Melissa Hoffer received an impartiality determination that allowed her to participate in meetings and discussions regarding the “policy decisions” related to these cases, though she was still barred from participation related to the underlying merits of the cases.

“The very first Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Protect the Public’s Trust revealed exactly why FOIA is so important,” declared Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “The records we were able to obtain shed light on a variety of ethics issues at EPA the American public otherwise would not have known about, including a possible violation and an official with employment ties to a hostile foreign government. We will continue to press agencies and uncover the information the public deserves to know.”