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EPA Press Staff Under Pruitt Sought to Discredit Departing Career Staff

Emails newly released under FOIA reveal distortions of pensions of Trump critics.

Communications staffers working at the Environmental Protection Agency during the early days of the Trump administration created press strategies to discredit at least two career staffers who left after leveling harsh criticism of policy changes made by since-resigned Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Internal emails obtained under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit were released on Thursday by the nonprofit advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which had provided legal representation for one of the departed employees.

“Hot Air: Another EPA Staffer ‘Quit’ Because of Trump (But Is Actually Retiring)” read the subject line of one email sent by spokesman Jahan Wilcox to colleagues, aimed at pitching coverage in the “liberal” Washington Post and more conservative media outlets. The idea was that outspoken EPA career staff who resigned with blasts at President Trump’s environmental policies were actually executing long-standing plans to retire with generous pensions.

In the case of Seattle-based climate change adviser Michael Cox, the strategy was to point to past coverage of his statements before his 2017 retirement. Spokesman Wilcox then told the Los Angeles Times that Cox was displaying “faux outrage” at Trump’s policies and was retiring with a “six-figure, taxpayer funded pension.”

Cox wrote to Wilcox to complain that his opinions were real and based on 25 years at EPA, giving his actual yearly pension as $48,991.68 before taxes and healthcare costs, or $39,163.20.

The other target was Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, who spent three decades in EPA’s water and science policy operations but left last August to fight Trump policies with former EPA employees. As PEER reported, the EPA press staff circulated negative information on her via conservative media, the Republican National Committee and even White House staff.

The memos on Southerland said she earned $249,000 in 2015, drawing comparisons that a member of Congress or senator makes $174, 000, and that Census data shows the average American makes $44,000.

PEER, in analyzing the heavily redacted selection of documents, argued that “EPA press people [obtained] Dr. Southerland’s salary information and [chose] the year she received the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, an honor less than 1 percent of senior managers ever receive, as part of her base salary. Then, the EPA flaks untruthfully claimed that federal retirees after 20 years of service receive their full salary for a lifetime.”

The names appearing in the EPA press office emails include Wilcox, Liz Bowman, Amy Graham and Samantha Dravis, who have all left and do not appear in the agency’s employee directory. (EPA press did not respond to Government Executive by publication time.) The White House staffer on the emails, Kelly Love, has also left, PEER said. Other names with their affiliation redacted for privacy include Bradley Rateike, Adam Kennedy and Kaelan Dorr.

Wilcox earlier this month told reporters he left EPA to work on Republican political campaigns for the November elections. He is serving as an adviser to the reelection campaign for Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, on whose senate staff another EPA press veteran under Pruitt, Liz Bowman, is communications director.