WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is under investigation to determine if bias was to blame for refusing to waive huge fees when conservative groups sought documents through the Freedom of Information Act to review controversial government actions.
Comparatively, the agency’s inspector general is also looking at decisions to waive those fees when environmental groups sought the internal documents, and in many cases used the information to force new government rules on private businesses.
“They are trying to break us, just as the IRS hacks were trying to break groups who muttered about things like tea party and Constitution,” said Chris Horner, a lawyer and senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank.
“It’s a major financial impediment they are throwing in the way of groups they would prefer to see not exist,” Horner said.
Horner’s use of the Freedom of Information Act most recently exposed former EPA chief Lisa Jackson’s use of a secret email account named after her dog to conduct official government business. Lawmakers are concerned that using the pseudonym blocked her communications from the prying eyes of Congress and the public.
Horner’s attempts to expose the scandal were initially blocked by the agency, including refusals to waive the costly price tag for releasing thousands of pages of government records. The cost of fees can easily escalate to more than $100,000.
“It can be fatal to groups pursing their mission,” Horner said. “They are using fees as a hurdle by attrition, just as the IRS did to weed out those who won’t be sufficiently persistent, as a means of delay.”
But the high cost of transparency was not imposed on environmental groups that are more in tune with the agency’s agenda, critics say.
Recent requests from five high profile and well-funded environmental groups to waive the fees were granted 92 percent of the time, while requests from CEI were denied 93 percent of the time from a period of Jan. 1, 2012 to April 26, 2013.
“The greens send it over on a cocktail napkin and they get (the information) overnight,” Horner said.
In one recent instance, the EPA released the confidential business information of 80,000 animal feeding operations and agriculture producers to litigious green groups raising concerns among lawmakers that the information would be used to harass ranchers and their families. The EPA acknowledged the mistake, but insists no damage was done because they have asked environmental groups to return the documents.
Also during the same time period, the EPA denied nearly every fee waiver request from states and localities.
The discrepancy has prompted an outcry among Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill who say the practice amounts to a subsidy for liberal environmental groups.
Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa wrote a letter May 17 to Bob Perciasepe, acting EPA administrator, launching their own inquiry in addition to the inspector’s general audit.
“The startling disparity in treatment strongly suggests EPA’s actions are possibly part of a broader effort to collude with groups that share the agency’s political agenda and discriminate against states and conservative organizations,” the letter said.
“This disparate treatment is unacceptable, especially in light of the recent controversy over abusive tactics at the Internal Revenue Service, which singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny,” the lawmakers said.
Perciasepe recently told a congressional panel it was not the EPA’s policy to treat groups differently.
He also sought to assure members of congress that career employees, not political appointees hired by President Barack Obama, determine fee waivers.
Horner says he does not find the declaration very reassuring.
“EPA is a beehive of left-wing environmental activists who have really ratcheted it up under Obama to keep non-green groups from getting information,” Horner said.