Washington, DC, April 5, 2018 — A federal lawsuit filed today seeks to demonstrate how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Public Affairs has become a fake news factory. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is suing to pry documents out of EPA detailing its campaign to discredit a distinguished employee who spoke out against policies initiated by Administrator Scott Pruitt.
On July 31, Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, a PhD in Environmental Science and Engineering, retired from EPA, having served as a senior executive in both the Water and Superfund programs. During her thirty-year career, she also received the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award.
As she retired, she issued a statement decrying recent EPA actions that put public health and the environment at greater risk. Among other disturbing developments, she cited “an industry deregulation approach based on abandonment of the polluter pays principle that underlies all environmental statutes.”
In reaction, EPA’s Office of Public Affairs questioned both the veracity of Dr. Southerland’s statements and her motivation for making them. Some statements were laughable, such as “We have a great working relationship with career EPA employees.” Others were snide, such as saying she walked away with a “six-figure taxpayer-funded pension” – a falsehood repeated for weeks, despite Betsy correcting it.
“In an effort to discredit me for speaking out and to intimidate current EPA employees, EPA may have provided my private employment information to media outlets and a political opposition research firm following my retirement,” said Dr. Southerland, referring to the Republican “war room” media firm EPA had retained. “It is disappointing that a career public servant could be treated with such malicious intent.”
On October 18, 2017, PEER, representing Dr. Southerland, filed a request under both the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act to disclose all agency communications about her following her retirement. The Privacy Act requires that federal agencies provide an individual access to records or information pertaining to him or her upon request.
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Over the succeeding months, EPA staff repeatedly indicated to PEER that it had completed a search, it had identified responsive documents, and that release was imminent. Yet as weeks passed, EPA would not commit to a release date even though it was months beyond the statutory deadline for both statutes. Today, PEER stopped waiting and filed suit to compel production.
“It is unfortunate that the EPA Office of Public Affairs has devolved into a tax-supported disinformation ministry, willing to smear even its most distinguished employees,” stated PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the complaint in DC’s federal district court. “Belying its title, EPA’s Office of Public Affairs snipes from the shadows and recoils from transparency like a bat from sunlight.”
The Justice Department, representing EPA, has thirty days to respond to the suit.