WASHINGTON — Environmental Protection Agency officials didn't violate anti-lobbying laws amid a high-stakes campaign over California's request for permission to strictly regulate greenhouse gas emissions in vehicles, federal investigators have concluded.
Rejecting charges by conservatives, the investigators said two top agency officials acted legally when they conveyed information to former EPA Administrator William Reilly, who supported California's clean-air waiver request. Reilly, a moderate Republican, was EPA administrator under former President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993.
"EPA staff did not engage in any effort to influence a member of Congress or other covered official," the EPA's Office of Inspector General concluded in a new audit.
The latest investigation may close out the controversy over what happened as the current Bush administration considered California's waiver request. The clean-air waiver proposal itself, though, remains alive and kicking.
California lawmakers are now urging President-elect Barack Obama to reconsider the clean-air waiver, which EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, a Bush appointee, rejected in December 2007.
"I definitely believe that Barack Obama will sign the waiver, because he said he was going to do it, and he's a man of his word," Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said Monday.
At least 18 other states likewise seek more power to regulate emissions, Boxer noted. First, though, the states need a waiver from the federal air pollution law that sets a less stringent national standard. California's stricter rules would cut tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 30 percent by the year 2016.
Lobbying controversies have pervaded the clean-air waiver fight from the start. Last year, congressional investigators revealed the Transportation Department was actively lobbying Congress to rally opposition to a waiver. Top White House officials also pressured Johnson to deny the waiver, Boxer has previously charged.
"Relatively early in the process, I had the impression that (Johnson) was quite interested in and was seriously exploring . . . granting the waiver," EPA official Jason Burnett told House investigators in a deposition. "His final decision is well known."
Burnett refused, however, to explain further what role the White House might have played in Johnson's apparent change of mind.
Discussions between Capitol Hill and Obama transition officials now focus on how the waiver might happen. A lawsuit filed by California probably will have to be settled, though it's unclear whether a new public comment period will have to be opened.
"Combating global warming is not only good for the environment, it's great for the economy," Boxer said, "and I believe that Barack Obama believes that, too."
Boxer is the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The senior Republican on her committee, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, is a critic of the science surrounding greenhouse gas emissions.
In March, Inhofe requested that investigators look into how EPA information came into Reilly's hands. Inhofe suggested officials might've violated the anti-lobbying act, which prohibits federal employees from using public funds to influence members of Congress or other government officials.
Inhofe's allegation amounted to a bank shot. EPA officials were giving information to Reilly, who in turn was trying to persuade the EPA administrator to grant California's longstanding waiver request.
At a cost of $52,858, the Inspector General's Office looked into Inhofe's charges and quietly released its conclusions last week.
"The preparation and subsequent release of information to former administrator Reilly do not constitute a violation of law, regulation, or policy," the investigators concluded.
The investigators explained that Reilly called the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality in October 2007. He wanted background information for his upcoming conversation with Johnson.
"Mr. Reilly was not asking for inside information, or anything that was confidential or could be considered deliberative, but . . . he wanted public information, like what the press was reporting on the matter," the investigators stated.
An EPA staffer prepared a four-page response for Reilly, with one page called "Talking Points." Another EPA staffer decided not to send the "Talking Points" after concluding they were "too flowery." The EPA officials told investigators it was "very common" to share such information.
"If an automotive executive had asked for similar written material, he would have provided it," investigators said of one EPA staffer.
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