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House Chairmen Probe Power Industry Group’s Influence on EPA

Two agency officials in air quality office formerly worked with what lawmakers call “a secretive front group funded by utility companies.”

An industry coalition and law firm that for years have challenged federal application of the Clean Air Act have come under scrutiny by a trio of House committee and subcommittee chairmen concerned about possible conflicts of interests of two Trump administration appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency.

On Thursday, letters requesting documents went out to eight utility companies and the multi-city law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth from Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., the panel’s Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee Chair Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and its Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette.

They expressed concern about the Utility Air Regulatory Group, which they called “a secretive front group funded by utility companies and devoted to rolling back Clean Air Act regulations.” The two EPA officials previously affiliated with the coalition and the law firm are William Wehrum, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, and David Harlow, his senior counsel.

The letters to the companies and law firm say, “We are concerned that two former employees of your firm—William Wehrum and David Harlow—may have violated federal ethics rules by helping reverse EPA’s position in ongoing litigation. The Office of Air and Radiation’s agenda appears remarkably similar to the substantive agenda advanced by a group housed at your firm known as the Utility Air Regulatory Group,” they continued. “These allegations have raised substantial questions regarding whether Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Harlow are properly carrying out the CAA as directed by Congress, or instead changing agency policies and programs to benefit former clients.”

The Democratic chairmen questioned the law firm’s claims that it represents the industry coalition in administrative and judicial proceedings, citing a February story in Politico that referenced documents indicating the companies are the actual clients of the law firm. “UARG has avoided any transparency, with details of its funding and internal organization only recently revealed,” the lawmakers wrote to the eight companies. They include, in addition to the law firm: Ameren Corp., American Electric Power, DTE Energy, FirstEnergy, Southern Company Services, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and Vistra Energy.

The letters seek answers on the sources of funding for the coalition, such as whether the money comes from shareholders or ratepayers, and copies of all communications with EPA employees specified on a list. And they seek related documents going back to 2005.

Wehrum denied any conflict of interest when contacted by Politico. The law firm did not respond to queries from Government Executive. EPA Spokesperson James Hewitt told Government Executive on Friday that “EPA has not received a similar letter from Congress today. Since Bill Wehrum and David Harlow started at EPA, they have both been recused from all particular matters where DTE is a party.”