Legal Group Probes Obama EPA’s Alleged Lobbying on Social Media

Thunderclap platform was used to defend “Waters of the United States” rule.

Just as the Trump administration is preparing to seek repeal of a long-disputed Obama-era clean water regulation, a conservative legal group is suing the Environmental Protection Agency to obtain documents it says  demonstrate that EPA illegally used a social media platform for “propaganda” in defending the rule.

Judicial Watch on June 21 filed a complaint in U.S. District Court saying EPA had failed to respond to an earlier Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the agency’s use of the social media platform Thunderclap to promote the “Waters of the United States” regulation. That rule was finalized in 2015 under the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers, but was immediately challenged in court as burdensome by states and industry.

EPA sought to counter what it viewed as misinformation from critics by broadcasting messages to 1.8 million users of Thunderclap, which amplifies social messages on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, during the 2014-2015 rulemaking period.

Judicial Watch cited a December 2015 Government Accountability Office general counsel letter  to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.,  then chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, saying that EPA’s actions “violated publicity or propaganda and anti-lobbying provisions contained in appropriations acts.” GAO said “EPA engaged in covert propaganda when the agency did not identify EPA's role as the creator of the Thunderclap message to the target audience.”

At the same time, Republicans in Congress were pursuing legislation to block the rule. “EPA appealed to the public to contact Congress in opposition to pending legislation in violation of the grass-roots lobbying prohibition,” GAO said.

With EPA under new management, the Judicial Watch effort involves understanding past actions. “The Obama EPA has a checkered history on transparency and accountability,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said.  “Judicial Watch wants the details on the Obama EPA’s sketchy effort to secretly peddle propaganda to protect its regulatory power grab.”

EPA officials in 2015 told GAO auditors that the agency had sought to “clarify the issues concerning the WOTUS proposed rule, to provide information about streams and wetlands, to demonstrate the rule’s relevance, to provide opportunities for public engagement, and to correct what it viewed as misinformation concerning the rule.”

But GAO found that by providing links to external websites in a blogpost that went along with messages under the agency’s DitchtheMyth Campaign and CleanWaterRules Campaign, EPA violated the anti-propaganda provisions of the rules against grass-roots lobbying by agencies.

EPA did not respond to requests for comment.

A more recent example of possible violations of the rule against grass-roots lobbying by agencies involved the Chemical Safety Board’s efforts to justify its existence in the face of a Trump proposal to eliminate it.