Hugh Hewitt repeatedly used his employment at MSNBC to praise the Trump administration's efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act, calling it one of the “accomplishments” of President Donald Trump's first year in office. But Hewitt and MSNBC did not disclose that one of his law firm’s clients is an oil and gas company that is currently litigating allegations it violated the environmental law.
Hewitt hosts a weekend MSNBC program and contributes to the network’s other programming. He is also a syndicated radio host and partner at the law firm Larson O’Brien.
Hewitt's status at Larson O’Brien presents numeorus potential and existing conflicts of interest for his media employment. The firm stated in a May 5, 2017, press release that it will be opening a Washington, D.C., office and that it “is currently representing clients before the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.” The press release touted Hewitt’s relocation to the Washington area as a reason for the firm to “have a permanent presence in the District.”
Hewitt has recently come under fire after Politico reported on his role in brokering a meeting between Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt and lawyers at Larson O’Brien; the meeting was concerning the efforts of firm client Orange County Water District to get the EPA to devote resources to cleaning up a polluted site in the district. The publication also noted that Hewitt has been a staunch defender of Pruitt on MSNBC.
In a statement today, MSNBC said that “Hewitt disclosed several times to MSNBC viewers that he has a friendship with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and also that Hewitt’s son works for the agency." The network said Hewitt at some point stopped discussing “EPA-related matters on MSNBC” and it gave Hewitt a “verbal warning” after it learned about the Orange County Water District meeting.
MSNBC statement on Hugh Hewitt pic.twitter.com/amrBowJqXO
— Max Tani (@maxwelltani) May 9, 2018
However, Media Matters has found another ethical problem with Hewitt’s MSNBC commentary regarding a different client of his law firm.
Larson O’Brien, which was formed in 2016, states that its practice areas include “environmental and water rights.” One of its prominent clients has been HVI Cat Canyon Inc. (HVI-CC), which was formerly known as Greka Oil & Gas Inc.
In June 2011, state and federal agencies -- including the EPA -- accused HVI-CC of violating provisions of the Clean Water Act by having “illegally discharged crude oil and produced water from its oil and gas production facilities in Santa Barbara County during 21 spills between June 2005 and December 2010. The spills resulted from ruptured storage tanks, corroded pipelines and overflowing injection ponds. Oil from each of the spills flowed into nearby waterways.” Since then, HVI-CC has been involved in years of litigation concerning the oil spills.
In 2015, the Obama administration strengthened the Clean Water Act by enacting the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, with then-President Barack Obama stating that it “will provide the clarity and certainty businesses and industry need about which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, and it will ensure polluters who knowingly threaten our waters can be held accountable.” FoxNews.com wrote that “the case against HVI got a boost when” Obama signed that rule.
Business interests were unsurprisingly opposed to the rule, and on February 28, 2017, Trump signed an executive order that set in motion the rollback of WOTUS with the goal of replacing it with a more industry-friendly rule. Environmentalists have responded by arguing that the administration's moves are efforts to weakened the landmark Clean Water Act.
On March 16, 2017, Larson O’Brien filed a motion asking a district court to permanently halt the case against HVI-CC in light of Trump’s executive order regarding WOTUS. (Litigation regarding the case is ongoing.)
In other words, Hewitt’s law firm has had a financial connection -- both through its practice area and with a specific client -- to the Clean Water Act. But those conflicts of interest haven’t stopped Hewitt from using his MSNBC platform to praise the weakening of the law through the rollback of WOTUS.
During the September 29 edition of MTP Daily, Hewitt defended ethics questions about Pruitt by praising his work on the water rollback: “Those four trips, all preapproved by the [EPA's Office of General Counsel]. He was going to the bottom of Oklahoma in one of them to meet with stakeholders that President Obama never cared about: small farmers, small plot holders, wetland people. It was the Waters of the United States Rule rollback. By all means, throw some attention on that.”
During the December 22 edition of MTP Daily, Hewitt cited the rollback of the water rule as an accomplishment, stating: “So, the president's numbers are horrible, but the accomplishments of this year, especially when it comes to [Supreme Court Justice] Neil Gorsuch and 12 appeals court judges, the EPA rollback of the Waters of the United States rule, the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Accord and, most importantly, defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, there's a lot of reframing going on.”
During the April 2 edition of MSNBC’s The Beat, Hewitt defended questions about an apartment Pruitt rented at below market rate from the wife of an energy lobbyist by stating: “It is not in any way, shape, or form a gift. It’s much ado about nothing. I think this is really about policy, Stephanie, as we talked about on Twitter, and I think it’s about the [Federal Vacancies Reform Act]. Specifically, people on the left are upset with Scott Pruitt over the Clean Power Plan, which he repealed; the Waters of the United States, which he repealed; the [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards today, which he put up for repeal. He’s executing Donald Trump’s policy on WOTUS and on regulatory rollback, and they want him out.”
Hewitt did not disclose his law firm’s work related to the Clean Water Act in any of those appearances.
MSNBC did not return a request for comment from Media Matters for this piece.
Media Matters also documented that The Washington Post repeatedly allowed Hewitt to write columns praising Pruitt without disclosing that Hewitt’s law firm does work before the agency. He also referenced the water rollback, writing on March 1, 2017: “Trump’s repeated calls in many places for regulatory reform had been foreshadowed earlier Tuesday with an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency and its new and very able director, Scott Pruitt, to move quickly to roll back the ruinous, overreaching ‘Waters of the United States’ rule of the Obama years.” Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told Media Matters on May 8 that Hewitt would no longer write about Pruitt.