Emergence of a new EPA document ordering some staff not to talk to reporters, congressional investigators, or even internal investigators from the agency's Inspector General's office seems to be the straw that has broken the camel's back. Four Senate Democrats are now calling for EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson's resignation.
Press access to EPA officials and information is an issue that has smoldered for most of the eight years of the Bush presidency (and previous administrations, too). But as the presidential race enters the home stretch with convention month, the lack of access may have serious political consequences.
At least, it will in California. Senate Environment Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) tried to get answers and documents from Johnson on his decision to deny her state a waiver so it could regulate greenhouse gases. Johnson stonewalled, refusing to turn over documents that showed he was ordered to deny the waiver by the White House. The documents later emerged. Now Boxer is asking the Justice Department to investigate whether Johnson perjured himself when he testified under oath that he made the decision on his own. The GOP has largely backed Bush loyalist Johnson, and it could cost them electoral votes in November.
SEJ members have complained for years about the barriers the EPA headquarters press office imposes between them and the EPA scientists and staff they need to talk to in order to report the news.
THE SMOKING MEMO
The smoking memo (not the first, actually) was written by Robbi Farrell June 16, 2008, and addressed to the heads of various branches within EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA). Farrell is chief of staff of the Office of Compliance within OECA.
It reads in part: "Please remind your staff at your next staff meeting of the following policies and procedures. 1. If you are contacted by a reporter, please forward the call or email to Laura Gentile and Roxanne Smith, cc Robbi. Please do not respond to questions or make any statements."
Gentile is a press officer attached to the office of Associate Administrator for OECA and Smith is a line press officer within the EPA press office who handles compliance matters.
Numerous EPA staff have told SEJ members over the past eight years that they are not allowed to talk to reporters without approval from the HQ press office. Headquarters press officers have told SEJ members that no such policy exists, at least not in writing. They have also told SEJ members the opposite.
What is clear now is that EPA HQ press officials have not been telling reporters or the public the truth. The policy exists, and its existence is abundantly demonstrated by the fear expressed by EPA employees when reporters ask to talk with them.
But EPA has artfully avoided putting the "don't talk to reporters without permission" policy in writing. A FOIA request by the Union of Concerned Scientists for any copies of such a policy yielded no overarching, agency-wide, written press policy. EPA is unusual among government agencies in not having any written press policy that it is willing to disclose.
Yet EPA administrator Steve Johnson, in response to a direct question from an SEJ member at an open June 8, 2005, press conference, said: "I'm not aware of any gag order, so to speak, and certainly no policy that I have now or ever have had. I will say that my experience in the government over the past number of years is that I encourage, and in fact ask, that our staff work with our Office of Public Affairs, for a number of reasons." (See WatchDog of June 15, 2005.)
Reporters who try to pin down this key fact are often stymied by EPA's stance of saying that it is both true and untrue. Under today's rules of journalism, this often relegates it to the realm of spin and opinion.
Hence the embarrassment of EPA whenever written confirmation of the actual policy accidentally emerges. The Farrell memo of June 16 was actually one of several. It was released by (and presumably leaked to) Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group that often speaks for EPA employees. Dina Cappiello of the AP was first off the blocks with the story, but it was quickly picked up by CBS, the Washington Post, McClatchy, USA Today, CNN, and others.
The idea that press offices and officers are paid to deceive reporters is no longer unspeakable in Washington, partly as a result of former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's book, What Happened and his talk-show tour. While there are many honest and well-meaning press officers working for the federal government, neither the press office leaders nor the agencies themselves seem concerned about what happens when the public loses confidence in their integrity.
PREVIOUS DOCUMENTATION OF PRESS POLICY
The June 16 memo was really just the latest written evidence that EPA's no-tell policy is transmitted by word of mouth and less-formal, low-level communications throughout the agency. Some other examples:
- PEER published a leaked Feb. 9, 2006, email to all staff from Ann Brown, News Director for the EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD). It instructed ORD staff not to allow interviews and refer all queries to her.
- Before the 2004 election, the acting administrator of EPA's Region V office in Chicago instructed all staff not to respond to any news media inquiries. The memo was leaked to PEER.
- A Sept. 17, 2004, Inside EPA article cited similar restrictions in Region VIII (Rocky Mountain states). Citing various sources and documents, the newsletter reported that EPA employees had been told to respond to any questions having political implications with "No comment."
One of EPA's responses has been to deny any agency-wide, top-down gag order, while admitting such policies may exist in a few rogue offices or regions. That was the tack taken by the EPA press office in an anonymous desk statement July 28, 2008. But the focus on offices and regions (whose written policies vary) is a deceptive distraction. Not only is the "don't talk without PIO permission" policy agency-wide — it is in fact virtually government-wide in this administration, especially wherever politics, money, science, and regulation are at stake (with a few exceptions).
Salon recently documented the fact that the policy goes all the way up to the White House. The article cited e-mails showing that media requests to NOAA for interviews regarding climate science were being handled and cleared at the White House. (See WatchDog of Sep. 20, 2006.)
Read Part 2 (continued).