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WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's administration failed to follow ethics rules last year when it dismissed academic members of Environmental Protection Agency advisory boards and replaced them with appointees connected to industry, a federal watchdog agency concluded Monday.

The agency, the Government Accountability Office, found that the administration "did not consistently ensure" that appointees to EPA advisory panels met federal ethics requirements. It also concluded that Trump administration officials violated EPA guidelines by not basing the appointments on recommendations made by career staff members.

Scott Pruitt, Trump's first EPA administrator who resigned last year amid ethics scandals, remade the agency's science advisory panels because he said they did not fairly represent the United States geographically or the industries affected by regulations.

The percentage of academic scientists serving on one EPA panel, the Scientific Advisory Board, dropped 27% during the first year of the Trump administration. Academics on the agency's Board of Scientific Counselors dropped 45%. Investigators found that the percentage of academics on EPA advisory boards remained stable around 83% during the first year President Barack Obama was in office.

About 23% of the financial disclosure forms that the accountability office reviewed for the new members were incomplete. In more than half of all cases, auditors were unable to determine whether an ethics official had reviewed the member's disclosure.

"EPA also did not consistently ensure that members appointed as special government employees -- who are expected to provide their best judgment free from conflicts of interest and are required by federal regulations to disclose their financial interests -- met federal ethics requirements," the report said.

It also said the agency "did not follow a key step" in its own rules by failing to document the agency's rationale for appointing new panel members. Under established procedures, agency staff members are expected to outline their decisions for recommending certain candidates.

"This report shows that the Trump administration rigged influential advisory boards to favor its polluter backers," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in a statement.

The House Science Committee is expected to raise the findings in a hearing today.

The EPA denied violating guidelines. Michael Abboud, a spokesman for the EPA, noted in an email that challenges to the agency's appointment decisions "have been dismissed in three separate district courts."

"EPA is proud of the fact that its chartered scientific advisory committees have the highest participation of state, local, and tribal experts than at any point in the Agency's history," Abboud said.

The GAO report found that Pruitt remade the panels geographically to include a 25% increase in members from the South, which the watchdog agency defined as spanning from Delaware to Texas.

A Section on 07/16/2019

Print Headline: Agency claims EPA violated ethics rules

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