Effort to Save Agency from Budget Ax Draws Allegations of Wrongful Lobbying

Chemical Safety Board official allegedly circulated a flyer designed to preserve funding.

The small independent investigative agency known as the Chemical Safety Board has been targeted by the Trump White House for elimination in the president’s fiscal 2018 budget request.

But in the week before Memorial Day, it was also targeted by the conservative news outlet The Daily Caller, which unearthed emails that allegedly showed that safety board member Rick Engler has been accused of violating laws that prevent federal employees from lobbying.

Engler -- who had previously been the subject of an E&E Greenwire story on his use of CSB email to help unions in a California regulatory dispute -- was described by The Daily Caller as having “worked with union activists to promote a grass-roots campaign to keep the agency from losing its funding.”

He is said to have recently forwarded to his fellow board members a union flyer titled “Stand Up for Chemical Safety” with the Twitter hashtag SAVE CSB.  “CSB investigates chemical disasters to find their causes and recommends ways to prevent future accidents,” it read. “No other federal agency or private group does this.”

Other conservative news outlets since Trump took office have protested federal employees who use official time or tools to object to changes in policy.

Asked for comment, CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen told Government Executive, “The agency does not condone grass-roots lobbying and strives to ensure full compliance with all ethics laws and regulations.”

Engler, before his appointment by President Obama in 2014, ran the pro-union regulatory and safety advocacy group called the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which produced the flyer. That document urged the reader to “Call and write your congressional representative and the ones below and urge them to make our nation, communities and workplaces safer by voting to maintain $11.6 million in funding for CSB. Our health, lives and jobs are worth it!”

 Engler’s previous use of email for nonofficial CSB business did not rise to the level of prosecution or an investigation by the CSB’s watchdog, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general, according to reporting by Bloomberg BNA.

The obligations of federal employees in regard to lobbying were examined in an unsigned Congressional Research Service report from 2015. “The restrictions on the use of federal funds to lobby the Congress have, for example, been consistently interpreted to allow direct communications from federal officers or employees to Congress with respect to legislation or appropriations in order to facilitate an open dialogue between the agencies, departments, and officials in the various branches of government with regard to the public business and public policy options,” it said. “What may generally be prohibited by these various appropriations restrictions, however, are what are known as ‘grass roots’ lobbying campaigns—where federal appropriations are used by an agency or federal officer to specifically urge the public to write or communicate with Congress to favor or oppose legislation.”

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a frequent critic of CSB management, told Government Executive, “The sole authority on whether Mr. Engler broke rules barring grass-roots lobbying –and what the penalty should be – is the Trump White House. It will be interesting to see whether the White House has an interest in, or the capacity to, enforce ethics restrictions within the executive branch.”

But Scott H. Amey, general counsel of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, said: “Engler's involvement on this save CSB lobbying campaign likely constitutes a violation of the federal anti-lobbying law. That said, I wouldn't expect Uncle Sam to move forward with a case against him because the lobbying doesn't rise to Justice's legal threshold of a ‘substantial’ or ‘large-scale’ expense of public funds. If the CSB wants to shield itself from budget cuts, it should engage in direct communications with Congress and prove its worth by highlighting its investigations and safety proposals that protect workers and the public.”