The recent resignation of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt under a wave of scandals demonstrated the powerful role whistleblowing and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests can play together in exposing abuses and catalyzing accountability.
Although Administrator Pruitt’s tenure was marked by scandal throughout, public pressure escalated this past April, when The New York Times published an article detailing the EPA’s reassignment and termination of officials who challenged Pruitt’s spending and management practices. Just a week later, five Democrats in the House and Senate addressed a public letter to Pruitt containing 19 separate requests for records that stemmed from the disclosures of numerous whistleblowers, including both Deputy Chiefs of Staff, one of whom was Kevin Chmielewski, a long-time supporter and campaign aide of President Donald Trump who traveled frequently with Vice President Michael Pence on official trips.
In parallel, FOIA requests and litigation by organizations like the Sierra Club—a grassroots environmental organization—confirmed and expanded on these disclosures, putting pressure on the EPA to release internal communications and documents between Pruitt and his new hires because of their ties to Pruitt, the Trump campaign, and the fossil fuel industry.
Despite various EPA staffers voicing their unease and disapproval of extravagant spending practices and violations of EPA policy, including the well-reported $43,000 private phone booth, an excessive security detail, first-class air travel, and personal vacations, Pruitt often succeeded in enriching himself at the taxpayer’s expense.
Without the Sierra Club’s lawsuit and later deluge of FOIA requests, Pruitt may have survived increasing scrutiny. But after the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit when the EPA failed to respond to their requests within the statutorily required period, the EPA was forced to release tens of thousands of pages of internal documents that confirmed and expanded on existing reports and EPA whistleblowers’ disclosures. These FOIA responses galvanized widespread public pressure and criticism, drawing attention not only to Pruitt’s wasteful spending practices, but also to his extreme attempts at secrecy and avoiding scrutiny—including withholding a calendar of his appearances, not holding press conferences, refusing public questioning at speaking engagements, and even dividing event guests into “friendly” and “unfriendly” groups.
Another example of FOIA being used as corroborating evidence for whistleblowers is substantiating allegations of Pruitt’s “secret” calendar, which he used to deliberately hide controversial meetings and calls, including those with industry representatives and Cardinal George Pell, who was charged with sexual offenses just weeks after their meeting. Such a calendar may violate federal law, since it reflected a deliberate attempt to falsify or hide public records. Although Mr. Pruitt ordered his scheduler Madeline Morris to remove the meeting with Cardinal Pell from the public record, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox has publicly denied this allegation. In this case, the FOIA requests revealed sharp discrepancies between Pruitt’s public calendar and internal records, emails, and itineraries, creating enough evidence to support Chmielewski’s claim. These inconsistencies included meetings with industry representatives and fossil fuel executives.
Using FOIA requests to support whistleblowers can be a risky strategy if not used cautiously. Over-precise FOIA requests risk tipping the agency off to the existence and identity of the whistleblower. This danger was clear in the case of Terry Albury, who blew the whistle on the FBI’s expansion since 9/11. Albury’s disclosure to The Intercept led the organization to make FOIA requests for specific documents. An FBI review into the FOIA request revealed that only Albury had accessed and “cut and paste[d]” one of the requested documents, leading to his identification and subsequent charge of publicly disclosing classified information. Use of FOIA requests to identify confidential sources is not limited to the intelligence agencies. In December, The Washington Post reported that both the EPA and the Department of Interior were closely monitoring FOIA requests, setting the stage to identify potential whistleblowers. Moving forward, FOIA requests submitted by journalists and public interest watchdogs will likely be subject to heightened review.
Pruitt, who ultimately resigned on July 5th, continues to face widespread public criticism and at least 13 federal investigations. The story of his fall stands as a testament to the power of information and transparency provided by whistleblowers and FOIA to expose abuses of power and hold wrongdoers accountable.
To learn more about working with whistleblowers and using FOIA as tools for transparency and accountability, two training workshops for public interest activists are being offered by the Government Accountability Project and Open the Government (OTG) on July 17 and 20 at Open Gov Hub in Washington, DC.
The first workshop on July 17 is for public interest activists across all issues. This training will feature Pulitzer-winning national security reporter James Risen of the Intercept and the Press Freedom Defense Fund along with Government Accountability Project attorney Dana Gold, OTG Policy Analyst Jesse Franzblau, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Policy Director Rick Blum. Register for this workshop here.
The second workshop will be held on July 20 and is specifically dedicated to immigration justice advocates. The workshop will encourage collaboration and will feature Government Accountability Project attorney Dana Gold, Government Accountability Project Investigator Zack Kopplin, MuckRock cofounder Michael Morisy, and OTG Policy Analyst Jesse Franzblau. Register for this workshop here.
For those unable to attend in person, the workshops will be recorded and available for future viewing.