Most Ethical in History? Former Top EPA Lawyer May Have Committed Ethics Violation While Exiting Through Revolving Door

Most Ethical in History? Former Top EPA Lawyer May Have Committed Ethics Violation While Exiting Through Revolving Door

  • August 1, 2023
Failure to report deal with future employer for weeks after deadline created potential for conflicts of interest

Today, government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced it has filed yet another complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Inspector General regarding alleged ethics violations at the agency. As Principal Deputy General Counsel, Melissa Hoffer served as one the highest-ranking lawyers at EPA, yet it appears she failed to comply with basic ethics law when seeking employment outside the government. In prior administrations, actions comparable to those alleged could easily have resulted in an abrupt investigation.

Ms. Hoffer joined EPA in January 2021, after serving for more than eight years in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. Upon starting at EPA, she was Acting General Counsel until the confirmation of Jeff Prieto as General Counsel on November 3, 2021.  Thereafter, she served as Principal Deputy General Counsel until she left EPA on December 30, 2022.

At some point toward the end of her tenure at EPA, Ms. Hoffer entered negotiations and reached an agreement with Massachusetts to return to employment with the Commonwealth as “Climate Chief” in the newly created, cabinet-level “Office of Climate Innovation and Resilience.” In her prominent new role, she was widely touted as the nation’s first state “climate czar.” As part of her ethics obligations, Ms. Hoffer was required to provide EPA’s Ethics Office with notice within three business days of any negotiations or agreement reached about employment with any non-federal entity.

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that, by Ms. Hoffer’s own account, her negotiations with Massachusetts began on November 28, 2022. Yet, she did not inform the ethics office until December 16, nearly three weeks later. The ethics office sent the notification for her to complete just 35 minutes after learning of her departure, but she did not return the completed and signed notification until December 27, 2022 – just shy of a month after Ms. Hoffer claimed to have begun negotiations with Massachusetts.

This notification and its timely filing are essential so that ethics officials may identify any potential conflicts with the future employer and permit the appointee’s recusal from matters that may create those conflicts. These were even more important in Ms. Hoffer’s case. Just prior to joining EPA, she received a waiver allowing her to participate in matters related to thirty-seven cases pending in the Office of General Counsel where Massachusetts was a party or intervenor. After a thorough search of agency records, it appears Ms. Hoffer failed to sign or submit any recusal statement after accepting her job with the state of Massachusetts. Moreover, timely recusal would not have been possible as she failed to notify ethics officials for weeks after these recusal obligations should have been in effect.

The apparent ignorance of or disregard for her obligations by Ms. Hoffer – one of the highest-ranking lawyers at EPA – should not be allowed to stand without comment or correction. Accordingly, PPT has filed an ethics complaint with the EPA.

“If the Biden administration is truly committed to its claims to be the most ethical in history, it needs to take a hard look at its EPA,” declared Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “As one of the agency’s most powerful attorneys Ms. Hoffer clearly should have known the rules and been diligent in ensuring that she followed them. Not only does this set a terrible example for others it adds to the by now nearly complete erosion of trust by the American public in its government.”