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  • A timeline of scandals and ethical shortfalls at Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department

    Journalists have uncovered a long list of the interior secretary’s questionable actions and controversies

    Blog ››› ››› EVLONDO COOPER



    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    This post was updated on 6/28/18 to incorporate additional news reports.

    Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s multiple scandals have triggered at least 10 government investigations into his conduct plus requests for at least three more. They involve a number of issues including excessive travel expenditures, apparent coziness with industries affected by his department’s decisions, and potential violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from some types of political activity. Under his leadership, the Department of Interior (DOI) has been credibly accused of doing the bidding of dirty energy lobbyists, misappropriating government resources, discriminating against Native American employees, and censoring scientific reports. Even in an administration that may be the most unethical in modern history, Zinke’s corruption and managerial ineptness stand out.

    Journalists have documented numerous instances of questionable ethical behavior at DOI during Zinke’s 15 months at the head of the department. The following is an overview of original reporting on scandals and controversies at Zinke’s DOI:

    July 26, 2017, Anchorage Daily News: Zinke threatened to pull support for projects in Alaska after Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted “no” on Obamacare repeal. On July 26, Zinke called Alaska’s two senators, Lisa Murkowski (R) and Dan Sullivan (R), to inform them that Murkowski’s vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act jeopardized administration support for projects in Alaska, including expanding oil drilling. Sullivan called Zinke’s message “troubling,” and Murkowski told E&E News, “It was a difficult call.” The DOI’s inspector general opened an investigation into the incident, then dropped it in late August after the senators refused to discuss it with investigators. The Government Accountability Office also opened an investigation, but then dropped it in June 2018 because DOI did not cooperate, Politico reported. "Interior did not provide us with any information on the substance of the telephone calls. In light of this, we lack the requisite facts on which to base a legal opinion," Thomas Armstrong, GAO's general counsel, wrote to two House Democrats who requested the investiation last year.

    September 28, 2017, Politico/Wash. Post: Zinke gave a speech to a hockey team owned by a campaign donor, then chartered a $12,000 flight home. Zinke traveled to Las Vegas on June 26 to give a motivational speech to a hockey team at the behest of team owner Bill Foley. After the speech, Zinke flew on a charter flight that cost taxpayers over $12,000 to an airport near his Montana home, aboard a plane owned by oil and gas executives. An inspector general report released on April 16, 2018, found that Zinke and his aides failed to relay important details about the trip to ethics officers, including Foley’s role as one of Zinke’s largest campaign contributors and the fact that the speech was unrelated to Zinke’s work as interior secretary. According to Politico, Foley donated $7,800 to Zinke’s 2014 congressional campaign, while employees and political action committees associated with his financial services company donated another $166,860. The inspector general also found that the $12,000 charter flight “could have been avoided.”

    October 5, 2017, Politico: Zinke’s participation in a Republican fundraiser in the Virgin Islands raised ethics concerns. During what DOI labeled an official trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Zinke attended a fundraiser for the Virgin Islands Republican Party in March 2017. Donors paid up to $5,000 per couple for a picture with him. After concerns were raised, the Virgin Islands Republican Party reimbursed taxpayers for the trip.

    November 20, 2017, Politico: Zinke’s wife used Interior staff and resources to coordinate her travel with her husband’s. Lola Zinke relied on DOI staff to ensure her travel arrangements allowed her to accompany the interior secretary during some of his official events and trips, including ones to California, Alaska, Norway, and Greenland. “While the department says Lola Zinke paid her own way, the records show Interior used staff time to coordinate some of her activities while traveling with her husband,” Politico reported. One ethics expert called that “an ethically gray area.” Some ethics watchdogs are also concerned that Lola Zinke is using her access to high-level events to further her own political career; until recently, she served as campaign chair for a Republican Senate candidate, and she worked on the Trump campaign and transition teams. The DOI’s inspector general tried to investigate whether these actions and other travel arrangements by Ryan Zinke constituted an abuse or misuse of government resources, but the investigation was stymied “by absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips and a review process that failed to include proper documentation and accountability,” according to a memo released on November 15.

    December 7, 2017, Politico: Zinke spent $14,000 on helicopter rides so he could attend a swearing-in and ride horses with Vice President Mike Pence. Zinke put taxpayers on the hook for a pair of helicopter trips that blurred the line between his professional and personal obligations. On June 21, he attended the swearing-in of his congressional replacement, Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), then took an $8,000 helicopter ride to an emergency management exercise in West Virginia. On July 7, Zinke took a $6,250 round-trip helicopter flight from Washington, D.C., to Yorktown, VA, to guarantee he was back in time to go horseback riding with Pence and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). The inspector general’s office declined to confirm an investigation into these specific helicopter rides, but spokesperson Nancy DiPaolo told CNN on December 8, “We are taking a comprehensive look at the secretary’s travel since he took office.”

    December 29, 2017, Newsweek: Zinke spent almost $40,000 in wildfire preparedness funds for a helicopter tour of Nevada. On July 30, days after firefighters managed to largely contain the Whittier Fire in California, Zinke used nearly $40,000 from wildfire preparedness funds to pay for a helicopter tour of Nevada that did not include any visits to fire zones. DOI initially told Newsweek the tour was “in full compliance of all federal regulations.” But after Newsweek provided Interior officials with documentation showing the tour was paid for with funds “earmarked for such uses as worker pay and to purchase equipment,” DOI admitted the helicopter tour “was charged to the account in error” and said it would pay for the ride from “a more appropriate account.”

    January 22, 2018, HuffPost: Zinke failed to disclose his shares in a firearms company and signed orders that could have benefitted the firearms industry. As nominee for interior secretary, Zinke neglected to inform the Office of Government Ethics that he retained 1,000 shares in PROOF Research, a rifle and weapons-parts manufacturer founded in Zinke’s hometown. Cabinet appointees are required to disclose all assets worth $1,000 or more. Although there is some dispute about the value of Zinke’s shares, HuffPost notes that Zinke’s long relationship with the company may have resulted in the company getting special access at Interior. Zinke provided consulting services to PROOF from 2011 to 2012. As interior secretary, he met with PROOF CEO Larry Murphy and a company lobbyist about a month after he was confirmed. Zinke also enacted policy changes -- such as rescinding the ban on lead ammunition and expanding hunting access at wildlife refuges -- that could benefit the firearms industry.

    February 1, 2018, Politico: Interior appeared to cave to pressure from MGM to stonewall a casino proposal backed by two Native American tribes. The Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes received indications from Interior officials in May 2017 that the department would clear the way for the tribes to build a casino in Connecticut, about 12 miles from MGM Resorts International’s nearly $1 billion casino complex in Massachusetts. But MGM launched an aggressive lobbying campaign to convince Interior’s political appointees to change course, including outreach to Zinke via multiple meetings and phone calls with two Nevada Republican lawmakers closely allied with MGM. MGM lobbyists were invited by Zinke for a social visit two weeks before the agency was to decide on the tribes’ request. MGM lobbyists also met with Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose former firm also lobbies for MGM. Bernhardt signed an ethics agreement barring him from “participating in matters involving his former employer,” according to ThinkProgress. On September 15, DOI informed the tribes that it would delay its decision, even though federal law requires it to decide yes or no within 45 days. Records obtained by Politico show that “career staffers were circulating what they labeled ‘approval’ letters just 48 hours before their political bosses reversed course and refused to either OK or reject the tribes’ application.” The DOI’s inspector general has opened an investigation into the incident.

    February 21, 2018, Mother Jones: Scientists resigned in protest after their agency violated ethical guidelines to give Zinke sensitive oil and gas research ahead of its public release. The head of the U.S. Geological Survey’s energy and minerals program, Murray Hitzman, resigned in protest on Dec. 17, 2017, after his agency bowed to pressure to provide Zinke with sensitive data about oil and gas deposits in Alaska before it was released publicly. The deputy associate director of the energy and minerals program also left the agency in part over pressure to violate ethical guidelines. Although DOI asserted its authority to see any scientific research the department produces, “numerous current and former Interior officials, however, say the department’s position raises serious ethical issues—particularly when it comes to energy and mineral assessments, which contain valuable economic data that have the potential to move markets,” Mother Jones reported. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), the ranking member of the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, asked DOI’s inspector general to investigate whether department officials committed any ethical violations in requesting the data.

    March 9, 2018, AP: Interior planned to spend nearly $139,000 to upgrade Zinke’s office doors. Interior officials approved a contract to renovate “three sets of double doors in the secretary’s office, including two doors that open onto a corner balcony with a spectacular view of the Washington Monument and the National Mall,” The Associated Press reported. Though Zinke scoffed at questions about the excessive price of the renovations during a Senate hearing on March 13, two days later he told the House Committee on Natural Resources that he negotiated the price down to $75,000. Despite this, House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) sent Zinke a letter on March 22 asking for a briefing “on the need to replace the doors” and asking for “details on the acquisition process, bidding and receipts,” according to Reuters.

    March 11, 2018, USA Today: Zinke’s trip to Pennsylvania to announce $56 million in grants during a close campaign may have violated the Hatch Act. Toward the end of a tight campaign for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone, Zinke went to nearby East Bethlehem to announce $56 million in grants to clean up abandoned mining sites in the area. The entire event “had the feel of a hastily arranged news conference/town hall meeting/political opportunity,” according to the local Observer-Reporter. Saccone was among the politicians present, while his challenger did not attend. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is weighing a request to investigate whether Zinke’s trip was designed to benefit Saccone politically.

    March 15, 2018, AP: Zinke stacks wildlife-trade advisory board with trophy hunters. Zinke appointed trophy hunters, including some with direct ties to the Trump family, to an advisory board tasked with rewriting federal rules to allow the importation of body parts from slain African elephants, lions, and rhinos. The Associated Press reported, “A coalition of more than 20 environmental and animal welfare groups objected that the one-sided makeup of the council could violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires government boards to be balanced in terms of points of view and not improperly influenced by special interests.” Most board members belong to hunting clubs or the National Rifle Association, and one member co-owns a private hunting reserve with Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. The Trump administration officially lifted a ban on importing elephant parts from Zimbabwe and Zambia on March 1.

    March 21, 2018, Politico: Zinke had a security detail during his two-week vacation in Greece and Turkey. Ryan and Lola Zinke’s two-week vacation in Greece and Turkey to celebrate their 25-year wedding anniversary also included a security detail, according to records obtained by Politico. Besides these bare facts, the public still does not know important details about this arrangement including “exactly how many security personnel accompanied the couple, who paid for them, how much they cost or whether they traveled with Zinke and his wife, Lola, for the entire trip,” Politico reported.

    March 26, 2018, Wash. Post: Zinke filled a new outdoor recreation advisory panel with members who could benefit from DOI decisions. At the urging of industry representatives, Zinke established the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee last November and appointed “officials representing companies with National Park Service contracts, such as those in the hospitality sector, as well as those from the manufacturing, fishing, boating and all-terrain-vehicle industries,” according to The Washington Post, which obtained records about the committee via the Freedom of Information Act. Two of Zinke’s nominees to the panel were flagged by Interior staffers as having potential conflicts of interest because their companies hold some of the National Park Service’s largest concessions contracts, but they were appointed anyway. 

    March 27, 2018, Politico: Florida’s offshore drilling exemption may have been intended to benefit Gov. Rick Scott’s Senate campaign. On January 4, 2018, Zinke announced a controversial proposal to allow offshore drilling in many new coastal areas, including off the coast of Florida. Five days later, Zinke exempted Florida from the expanded drilling plan after a supposedly spur-of-the-moment encounter in the Tallahassee airport with Florida Gov. Rick Scott. But records reviewed by Politico in March “showed that top officials from the offices of both Scott and the Interior secretary were in regular contact for several days leading up to the sudden announcement, contradicting the supposed spontaneous event that portrayed Scott as protecting Florida’s environment.” According to The Washington Post, “The whole episode seems to have been designed to demonstrate Mr. Scott’s power and influence, by having him appear to summon the interior secretary to his state and bring him to heel in an afternoon.” Scott announced his Senate candidacy on April 9, 2018. The next day, CNN reported the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating whether Zinke’s Florida announcement violated the Hatch Act.

    March 28, 2018, Talking Points Memo: Zinke’s mass reassignment of career Interior employees may have violated federal anti-discrimination laws. Last July, Zinke initiated the reassignment of 35 Senior Executive Service members at DOI, of which 27 were ultimately transferred. Many were told to “either accept a new placement on the other side of the country or in a role unrelated to their background, or leave the agency,” according to Talking Points Memo. The DOI’s inspector general concluded the reassignments occurred “without a written plan or clear criteria, and without consulting with the departmental leadership,” which created the perception that staff were reassigned for “political or punitive reasons.” Because a third of those reassigned are Native American, DOI may have violated federal anti-discrimination laws, as well as its own Indian Preference rules, as TPM later reported. Zinke has reportedly told senior staff that diversity is not important. After a congressional hearing in March, he was also accused of racial insensitivity for responding “Oh, konnichiwa” to Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) after she shared the experience of two of her grandfathers who were held in internment camps during World War II.

    April 6, 2018, Reveal: National Park Service deletes climate change from months-delayed report on sea-level rise. “National Park Service officials have deleted every mention of humans’ role in causing climate change in drafts of a long-awaited report on sea level rise and storm surge,” according to an investigation conducted by The Center for Investigative Reporting and published on its Reveal website. DOI oversees the National Park Service. Cat Hawkins, the head of the National Park Service’s climate change response program, made the deletions, in possible violation of Interior rules prohibiting political appointees from influencing scientific and scholarly activities. The report was also delayed for 10 months, which hindered park managers’ ability to access the latest research about how to mitigate the effects of extreme weather and sea-level rise on their parks. Zinke told the House Committee on Natural Resources in March, “I didn’t change a paragraph — a comma — in any document and I never would.” DOI’s inspector general is investigating the matter.

    April 16, 2018, HuffPost: Oil industry rep uses perch on DOI advisory group to push “wish list” of regulatory rollbacks. Under Zinke, advisory groups at DOI have been packed with industry representatives who want looser regulations. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), a lobbying group that represents 300 oil and gas companies, chairs one such group, which is tasked with recommending how Zinke should manage federal lands for fossil fuel development. The group’s recommendations, which included regulatory rollbacks that had been on WEA’s wish list for years, was initially drafted by Tripp Parks, WEA’s head of government affairs. According to HuffPost, “A document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that Parks created the draft recommendations one day before Sgamma circulated them to committee members overseeing the working group.” The Sierra Club’s legal director told HuffPost, “It’s a very clear instance of regulatory capture.”

    June 13, 2018, Wash. Post: DOI canceled a study of the health effects of mountaintop-removal coal mining with little justification, the department’s inspector general found. After DOI last August halted a major public health study being conducted by the National Academies of Science on the impacts of surface coal mining on nearby residents, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) sent two letters to Zinke requesting information about the stoppage. Grijalva received no answer, so he requested an investigation by the DOI’s inspector general, which then found that “Departmental officials were unable to provide specific criteria used for their determination whether to allow or cease certain grants and cooperative agreements.” Records obtained by Pacific Standard show that before DOI stopped the study, Deputy Assistant Secretary Katharine MacGregor “had no fewer than six meetings with the most powerful mining players in the country. In both April and May of 2017, she met with the National Mining Association. In March and June, meanwhile, she met with Arch Coal, a long-time practitioner of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.”

    June 19, 2018, Politico: Zinke and the chairman of Halliburton could both benefit from a proposed real-estate deal in Montana. A foundation created by Zinke is helping to pave the way for a large commercial development that is backed by David Lesar, the chairman of energy-services giant Halliburton. According to Politico, the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation -- established by Zinke and currently run by his wife Lola -- agreed to allow 95 Karrow LLC, the Lesar-backed entity, to build a parking lot on land that had been donated to the foundation for creation of a park. The Zinkes also personally own land that's adjacent to the proposed development, potentially making that land much more valuable if the proposed development deal were to go through. The deal also raises ethical concerns because Halliburton’s business could be substantially affected by decisions made by DOI. Zinke met with Lesar and the project’s other developers at Interior headquarters last year, Politico reported on June 21. Lesar and Zinke have had a relationship for years -- Lesar and his wife donated $10,400 to Zinke’s first House campaign in 2014. On June 28, DOI's Office of Inspector General announced that it will investigate the matter.

    June 26, 2018, Reuters: Zinke’s promotion of Trump's campaign slogan may have violated the Hatch Act. During a meeting of the Western Governors Association on June 26, Zinke tweeted a photo of one of his socks, which was emblazoned with Trump’s face and his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Zinke deleted that tweet and then posted a follow-up tweet that crossed out “Make America Great Again” yet still showed Trump’s face -- and then he deleted that one too. Those tweets may have violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits some forms of political activity by federal employees, Reuters reported. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced in March that because Trump has confirmed his candidacy for reelection, federal employees are prohibited while on duty from wearing or displaying items with the phrase “Make America Great Again” or non-official pictures of Trump.

    Ted MacDonald contributed to this post.

  • National TV news ignored adoption and foster care bills that allow discrimination against LGBTQ parents

    Bills in Oklahoma and Kansas would allow adoption and foster care agencies to deny placement with prospective LGBTQ parents, among others 

    Blog ››› ››› BRIANNA JANUARY


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Major national broadcast and cable TV news shows failed to talk about the deliberations over anti-LGBTQ bills in Oklahoma and Kansas that passed through their state legislatures on May 3 and in the early hours of May 4, respectively. The two bills, which would allow adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against prospective LGBTQ parents, will be the latest successes in the right’s strategy to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people; if enacted, they will be the only anti-LGBTQ legislation to succeed thus far during the 2018 state legislative sessions.

    The bills in Oklahoma and Kansas, which are awaiting signatures from their respective governors, would allow adoption and foster care agencies to reject prospective parents “who don’t fit their religious beliefs,” such as LGBTQ people, single people, divorcees, interfaith couples, and non-Christians. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has not signaled whether she will sign the legislation into law, but Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer has supported the state’s measure, and his administration testified in favor of the bill. The bills mark the most recent successful push by the Christian far-right to advocate for religious exemptions that make LGBTQ people second-class citizens.

    Between March 1 and May 2, the day before the two bills passed (Kansas’ passed in the early hours of May 4), there was no national broadcast or cable TV news coverage of the bills. Media Matters reviewed cable and broadcast news for mentions of the bills and found that not a single network -- including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, CBS News, Fox Broadcasting Co., and NBC News -- covered them at all.

    Media Matters also reviewed top national print media outlets -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as the Associated Press and Reuters newswires -- and found eight separate news reports in print and online mentioning one or both of the bills. The Associated Press reported on the two bills in seven different articles, all of which were reprinted in other news outlets. Only The Washington Post produced any other original reporting about the bills, mentioning them in passing in a report about the failure of other state bills to pass this year. Both The Wall Street Journal and USA Today failed to mention the bills in any news reports, and Reuters did not pick up the story either.

    Anti-LGBTQ adoption and foster care bills are often characterized as so-called “religious freedom” bills, but they are really ways to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people that limit the pool of homes for children in need of families. Research also shows that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the U.S. foster care system, and under bills like those passed in Oklahoma and Kansas, LGBTQ children in foster care could end up served by agencies that discriminate against LGBTQ people. These efforts are part of a broader state-level strategy by the Christian far-right and are supported and influenced by anti-LGBTQ hate groups, like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). In addition to the push for state-level legislation, the religious right’s influence on the Trump administration is apparent in the discriminatory policies and guidance that have been introduced in nearly every federal agency, including in the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Defense, and Education

    The two bills follow several other attempts to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people in adoption and foster care at the state level. Georgia and Colorado introduced similar bills this year that both failed, and last year, anti-LGBTQ adoption and foster care laws were adopted in Alabama, South Dakota, and Texas. A sweeping anti-LGBTQ religious exemptions law written by ADF went into effect in Mississippi in 2017; it included provisions allowing child welfare agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people. According to The Associated Press, before Oklahoma and Kansas passed their measures, “seven states … passed laws allowing faith-based adoption agencies some degree of protection if they refuse to place children with same-sex couples.” In addition to state-level advocacy, anti-LGBTQ groups have renewed calls for Congress to take up the issue at the national level.

    This year has seen what NBC News called a “striking shift from recent years” in that the approximately 120 anti-LGBTQ bills proposed in states all failed to pass their legislatures until the Kansas and Oklahoma measures. But that means the bills have major national significance, so national media should have been paying attention prior to their passage. April reports on other anti-LGBTQ bills failing across the country acknowledged that these two bills were major focuses of LGBTQ advocates.

    Methodology

    Media Matters searched Nexis transcripts of broadcast TV newscasts on ABC News, CBS News, Fox Broadcasting Co., and NBC News appearing between March 1 and May 2, which was the day before the bills passed (Kansas’ bill passed in the early hours of May 4), for mentions of the words or variations of the words “adoption,” “foster care,” “child welfare,” “SB 1140,” “religion,” “faith-based,” “Adoption Protection Act” occurring within 30 words of the terms or variations of the terms “Oklahoma,” “Kansas,” “same-sex,” “LGBT,” “gay,” “discriminate,” or “non-christian.” We also searched SnapStream for the same words and variations of words appearing on cable TV networks CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC between March 1 and May 2.

    Media Matters also searched Nexis for mentions of the same words or variations of words appearing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, and Reuters between March 1 and May 2. Additionally, we searched Factiva for mentions of the same words or variations of words appearing in The Wall Street Journal between March 1 and May 2. Media Matters also performed site searches for The New York TimesLos Angeles, The Washington Post, and USA Today for reprints of Associate Press coverage of the bills between March 1 and May 2. Media Matters did not include op-eds, columns, or editorials in this analysis.

    Additional research by Rebecca Damante and Brennan Suen.

    Charts and graphics by Sarah Wasko.

  • Yes, Kevin Williamson wanted to hang people who've had abortions. Don't let conservatives rewrite history.

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    This week, former National Review writer Kevin Williamson was fired by The Atlantic after 2014 audio proved that Williamson did, in fact, mean it when he said people who’ve had abortions should be hanged. In the resulting conservative meltdown, what right-wing outlets seemed desperate to do is have any conversation other than the one actually at hand. Instead, they chose to cry censorship, bemoan so-called liberal bias, and tried to rewrite history by saying Williamson was fired for holding a general anti-abortion stance.

    But this retelling is fundamentally untrue. Williamson wasn’t fired because he holds anti-abortion views. He was fired because he repeatedly, across multiple platforms, advocated for the criminalization and brutal execution of people seeking abortion care. And the fervor to distract from that truth would be truly astounding, if it wasn’t so eminently predictable. 

    When news of Williamson’s hiring first broke, a number of pundits across the ideological spectrum tripped over themselves to downplay and excuse his statements -- defending a so-called “provocateur” whose cherished turns of phrase include calling attacking transgender people as being “delusional,” and arguing that “it just simply is not the case that young black men are getting gunned down, unarmed, by police officers in any sort of significant numbers.” These writers -- including The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who initially framed Williamson’s comment as an “objectionable tweet” -- argued that Williamson hadn’t really meant what he said about people who’ve had abortions being executed, and asked us to kindly calm down. “For heaven’s sake,” wrote The New York Times’ Bret Stephens, “it was a tweet.” Others, such as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum called the rightful outrage over Williamson’s hiring, “weird,” while National Review’s David French implored readers to just “give tolerance a chance.”

    Once Williamson’s meaning proved truly undeniable, leading to his firing, right-wing media outlets raced to reframe the conversation -- ignoring the substance of his remarks to instead cry wolf about perceived ideological intolerance. For example, The Federalist wrote that Williamson “was fired for his opinions on abortion” after “the usual suspects freaked out and proceeded to dig up old tweets and audio.” Washington Examiner published not one, but two, pieces arguing that Williamson was a victim in a larger ideological war. In another example, RedState argued that Williamson wasn’t fired because of his “fanciful views about legal consequences connected to abortion,“ but that he was “kicked out for refusing to back down in expressing that abortion is murder and should be viewed as such even in this current climate.” David French even asked where the respect for Williamson’s tolerance was as he is “the son of a teen mom, born shortly before Roe v. Wade, and narrowly escaped being aborted,” who would’ve been forced to share an office at The Atlantic with people who support abortion access.

    What these defenses, and even Goldberg’s original justification for hiring Williamson, ignore is that statements like Williamson’s send a clear message to the one-in-four women who’ve had abortions in the United States: that their lives do not matter, that they are criminal, and that they deserve (even in hypothetical terms) to be brutally executed for seeking constitutionally protected and sometimes life-saving medical care.

    Williamson wasn’t fired because he’s anti-abortion -- he was fired because he advocated for the brutal punishment of those who’ve have abortions. Even if you grant the premise that Williamson was merely expressing what could happen in a future without legal abortion, that he not only carved out an exception to his overall ambivalent stance on the death penalty for those who have abortions, but also advocated for a method that is considered too inhumane by almost all the states that currently employ capital punishment, takes his comments beyond mere speculation.

    As research from Media Matters has previously shown, the people who are often empowered to shape the conversation about abortion are overwhelmingly men. As a result, these conversations reflect not only an incomplete understanding but also treat abortion as some sort of hypothetical thought exercise or as a political bargaining chip, ignoring real impacts that lack of access has on the lives of real people.

    Furthermore, Williamson’s defense of capital punishment for those who’ve had abortions is extreme but not really that hypothetical. Already, policies at the state level punish people for attempting to access abortion care. As Irin Carmon wrote in 2016: “Just ask Purvi Patel, who is appealing a 30-year prison sentence for her conviction for feticide in Indiana,” or Anna Yocca, Rennie Gibbs, Jennie Lynn McCormack, or Jennifer Whalen. She continued that all these cases all demonstrate how “women have been prosecuted under current restrictions on abortion, at times with major felonies.” Just this week in Idaho, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Bob Nonini was forced to walk back comments that the Associated Press characterized as “women who get an abortion should be punished” including that “that the punishment should include the death penalty.” During the presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (before later backtracking) that he thought there should “be some form of punishment” for people who have abortions. As Robin Marty explained, although the right may claim that punishing people for abortion is merely an “extreme fringe” of the movement, there are already anti-abortion groups and candidates running on platforms incredibly similar to what Williamson advocates. 

    Williamson felt so strongly on this topic that he even confirmed at the time to an anti-abortion publication that he meant exactly what he said. Given that right-wing media outlets have regularly participated in or facilitated anti-abortion harassment, it’s not surprising to see a lack of concern about Williamson’s comments. Conservatives may be desperate to change the conversation, but the fact remains: advocating for the brutal execution of people who’ve had abortions isn’t provocative or tolerant -- it’s cruel.

  • How Scott Pruitt's EPA is attacking journalists and stifling the media

    EPA takes up Trump’s war on the press by insulting media outlets, withholding information, and flouting public records requests

    Blog ››› ››› EVLONDO COOPER


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    This post was updated on 5/23/18 to incorporate additional news reports.

    Since Scott Pruitt took the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency in early 2017, the EPA has consistently refused to release basic information, blocked reporters from attending agency events, and attacked journalists and outlets whose coverage it didn't like. This antagonistic stance toward the media mirrors President Donald Trump’s unprecedented war against the press, which Media Matters has chronicled.

    Seeking a reset after a year of the agency’s attacks and obfuscation, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) sent a letter to the EPA’s press office in January in the hopes of improving journalists’ access to EPA information and "begin[ning] a conversation about journalists’ basic needs." The letter made five requests, which the group summarized on its website:

    1. Respond to inquiries in a meaningful and timely manner, arranging interviews with subject matter experts.
    1. Distribute all press releases and advisories, to all who request them, not just to a select audience.
    1. Hold open press briefings on significant news. Invite all regular beat reporters to in-person briefings held at EPA headquarters; provide web conferencing and teleconference access for all interested reporters outside the Washington area.
    1. Reinstate the practice of publishing a weekly list of the EPA administrator’s scheduled public appearances.
    1. Resume the practice of publishing an up-to-date calendar of all the EPA administrator’s meetings — not just public events.

    The EPA failed to respond to SEJ’s letter -- or to a follow-up inquiry -- so the group released the letter publicly in March. SEJ sent the EPA another letter on March 30 calling on the agency to “answer reporters' questions directly, rather than referring them to published articles by their favored media," as summarized on the SEJ website.

    Here are more than 20 examples of Pruitt's EPA assailing the press or frustrating journalists' efforts to cover the agency's actions.

    EPA withholds Pruitt’s schedule from the press. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who headed the agency under President Barack Obama from 2013 to early 2017, shared her schedule on the EPA website every day, but Pruitt, like many other members of Trump's cabinet, withholds basic information about his activities. According to Politico, the EPA has refused “to provide schedules or advisories of his upcoming meetings, confirm his attendance at specific events, or say what city he plans to be in on a given day." As a result, news outlets and watchdog groups have filed multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and lawsuits to obtain his calendars. When the EPA has eventually responded and released information about Pruitt's schedule, it has generally been bare-bones, partially redacted, or months late.

    EPA spokesperson: “Pruitt does not want open press." While coordinating logistics for a roundtable discussion Pruitt held at the University of North Dakota with the state's senior senator, John Hoeven (R), and governor, Doug Burgum (R), EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox asked that reporters not be permitted to attend, E&E News reported. Hoeven had wanted to include media, but Wilcox wrote to Burgum’s staffers that “most importantly Pruitt does not want open press." After being informed that reporters had already been invited to the last 15 minutes of the event, Wilcox insisted, “We can't have anything open."

    EPA spokesperson called police on North Dakota reporters trying to cover Pruitt event. EPA spokesperson Wilcox threatened to call the police on two reporters from the Grand Forks Herald who were attempting to cover Pruitt’s August 9 visit to the University of North Dakota. The Herald reported that after Wilcox made his threat, “A UND Police officer then arrived to insist the building and its grounds were private property before demanding the reporters move away from the center's front door. … The EERC is not private property and is owned by UND."

    EPA asked radio host not to take listener calls during interview with Pruitt. During his August 9 visit to North Dakota, Pruitt sat for a joint interview with Gov. Burgum, conducted by local talk radio host Scott Hennen. Hennen normally takes listener calls during his show, but documents obtained by E&E News show that EPA spokesperson Wilcox asked him not to during the Pruitt interview, and Hennen acquiesced.

    EPA terminated funding for a nonprofit newspaper after it reported that Trump's budget cuts would hurt the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay Journal, a nonprofit newspaper that covers environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay region and reaches approximately 100,000 readers, has been partially funded by the EPA since 1991. Last June, the paper reported that Trump's proposed budget would slash funding for Chesapeake Bay programs and harm restoration efforts. In August, the EPA abruptly canceled a previously approved $325,000 grant to the paper due to a “shift in priorities." The Bay Journal requested records pertaining to the termination, which EPA failed to produce, so the paper sued. Under pressure from Maryland's Democratic senators, the EPA restored the Bay Journal’s funding in March.  

    EPA attacked NY Times reporters in press release over pesticide story. On August 18, The New York Times published a story detailing how the EPA disregarded the advice of agency scientists by refusing to ban a harmful pesticide after Pruitt met with farming industry executives and told them he was listening to their pleas. Three days later, the EPA issued a press release attacking the story and accusing the reporters, Eric Lipton and Roni Caryn Rabin, of reporting "false facts" and omitting "inconvenient facts." Though the EPA did not dispute any of the story’s specific factual claims, the press release also stated that "the New York Times never lets the truth get in the way of a good story."

    EPA attacked AP reporter in press release over toxic-site story. On September 2, The Associated Press published a story on toxic sites flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which Washington Post media critic Eric Wemple later declared to be "factually sound." But the EPA issued a press release criticizing the story and attacking the credibility of the AP and Michael Biesecker, one of the reporters who wrote it. "Unfortunately, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story," the agency’s release read. The press release also included a statement from EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman that accused the AP of attempting to “mislead Americans” by “cherry-picking facts.” To bolster its attack on Biesecker and the AP, the release cited a Breitbart News article. 

    EPA dropped AP reporter from its email list and criticized him for not opening positive emails about Pruitt. The EPA had been unhappy with AP reporter Biesecker even before he published his story about toxic site flooding after Harvey. When The Washington Post's Wemple asked the EPA about its ongoing conflict with Biesecker, an agency official said that the EPA had removed Biesecker from its master email list, explaining, “We don’t think he’s a trustworthy reporter.” An EPA official also told the Post that the agency monitored which journalists opened its emailed press releases: “We are able to see who opens our emails,” the official said. “Michael [Biesecker] very rarely opens a positive story about [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt. He only opens stories where he tries to create problems.”

    EPA warned employees against leaking to the press. The EPA required employees to attend training sessions that warned them of the dangers of leaking sensitive information to the media, The Associated Press reported. During the mandatory training, employees were given a fact sheet that detailed how leaks have harmed America in the past and warned, "Enemies of the United States are relentless in their pursuit of information which they can exploit to harm US interests."

    EPA spokesperson misled NY Times reporter. In a talk at Yale, New York Times climate reporter Lisa Friedman recounted an instance in October when an EPA spokesperson gave her inaccurate information. Per the Yale Daily News, Friedman "said a spokesman for the EPA disputed the claim that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt planned to announce the decision [to roll back the Clean Power Plan] in Kentucky with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The spokesman told her that 'it was not accurate' to say that Pruitt was going to make such an announcement.” Friedman then told the audience, “Except for it was absolutely accurate, and Fox News was invited.” Friedman also said, “Covering the EPA is like covering the CIA. It is so secretive. It is so difficult even to get basic information.”

    EPA accused NY Times reporter of being “biased” and “writing elitist click bait.” When Times reporter Lipton sent detailed questions to the EPA about the agency loosening regulations on toxic chemicals, EPA spokesperson Bowman refused to answer his queries. Instead, she sent a caustic comment by email: “No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece. The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist click bait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.” Lipton quoted her comment in his article.

    EPA refused to confirm basic facts to NY Times reporter, then accused him of stealing from other news outlets. The Washington Post's Wemple reported further details on Lipton's back-and-forth with the EPA about his story on toxic chemical regulations. Lipton asked EPA spokesperson Bowman to confirm reports that Michael Dourson, Trump's nominee to head the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, began working at the EPA before being confirmed by the Senate. Bowman referred Lipton to stories published by USA Today and E&E News, which Lipton took as confirmation. Then EPA spokesperson Wilcox jumped into email chain, interjecting, “If you want to steal work from other outlets and pretend like it’s your own reporting that is your decision.” After Lipton explained to both spokespersons that basic fact-checking is critical to avoiding “Fake News,” Wilcox, ccing USA Today’s and E&E News’ reporters, replied to Lipton, “Adding the two outlets who you want to steal their work from to this email.”

    EPA had police remove reporter from Pruitt event in Iowa. Ethan Stoetzer, a journalist with InsideSources Iowa, never received a response after trying repeatedly to contact the EPA to RSVP for a December 1 event where Pruitt would be speaking at a cattle company headquarters in Iowa. The event was invite-only, but media were permitted to attend. According to his reporting, Stoetzer showed up to the event site and was initially allowed to enter the press booth. But then he “was approached by a Story County Sheriff’s Deputy, as well as several staff members of both the EPA and Couser Cattle Company, who did not give their names when asked, and was told that he had to leave the premises.” He reported that other members of the media who had not RSVP’d were allowed to remain at the event. EPA spokesperson Wilcox did not reply to repeated questions about why Stoetzer was forced off the premises.

    EPA hired Republican opposition-research firm to conduct "war room"-style media monitoring. The EPA awarded a no-bid contract worth $120,000 to an opposition-research firm, Definers Corp, that not only has deep connections to the Republican establishment, but is also tied to a research group that had been “looking for information that could undermine employees who had criticized the E.P.A.,” as The New York Times reported. Under the contract, Definers would provide the EPA with “‘war room’-style media monitoring, analysis, and advice," Mother Jones reported. The controversial contract was rescinded after media reports led to political outcry.

    EPA misled press about Pruitt's travel, then stonewalled. After journalists reported in February 2018 on Pruitt’s exorbitant travel expenses, EPA Node Menu spokesperson Wilcox initially told Politico that Pruitt had received a blanket waiver to travel first or business class. But a spokesperson for the General Services Administration, which oversees rules about officials' travel, told Politico that it does not issue blanket waivers. Wilcox then changed his story and said that Pruitt submits a request for a waiver for each trip. Refusing to answer further questions about Pruitt’s travel, Wilcox directed reporters to use FOIA to request additional information, "a process that can take months or years," Politico noted.

    EPA to reporters: You'll have to wait a year for responses to your FOIA requests. The EPA has been slow in responding to FOIA requests about Pruitt's office from media organizations and other groups, according to an analysis by the Project on Government Oversight. The agency had closed only about 17 percent of records requests related to Pruitt’s activities as of February, Politico reported. This aligns with the anecdotal stories of journalists who, when not ignored by the EPA, were informed that it would take a year to receive responses to their records requests. CNBC reported in February on a lawsuit filed against EPA alleging the agency "has systematically refused to document 'essential activities' under Pruitt, and higher-ups are creating a culture in which career employees are discouraged from creating written records."

    EPA tried to prevent news outlets from covering Pruitt’s announcement of vehicle efficiency rollbacks. After granting Fox News permission to cover Pruitt’s announcement that the agency would be revising Obama-era vehicle emissions and mileage standards, EPA officials tried to stop other television networks from reporting on the event. As CNN reported on April 3, “EPA had attempted to allow television camera access to Fox News without informing the other four networks: CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS. Fox alerted the networks and a pool was established allowing networks equal access to the event.” EPA public affairs officials also made little effort to inform other journalists about the event. According to CNN, “There were several journalists [at the event], including from The New York Times, Bloomberg and ABC News, according to one reporter in attendance, who added that it sounded like many of the reporters were notified of the event individually just before it took place and ran over. EPA did not send a wide notice of the event to the agency press list.”

    Pruitt has used multiple email addresses, which could hamper fulfillment of FOIA requests by media outlets and others. After learning that Pruitt uses three secret EPA email addresses in addition to his official email address, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Carper (D-DE) asked the EPA’s inspector general on April 10 to investigate if Pruitt “may be withholding information from the public in violation of valid FOIA requests.” On May 2, the inspector general said his office plans to open an investigation into whether the EPA is violating the Federal Records Act.

    EPA press office engaged in “questionable activities” that may have violated federal rules, Sierra Club alleged in a lawsuit. Via a Twitter thread posted on April 20, Sierra Club attorney Elena Saxonhouse announced that her group had sued the EPA for failing to provide public records related to the activities of the agency’s Office of Public Affairs. Saxonhouse alleged that the office had engaged in a number of “questionable activities,” which included “creating a right-wing media echo chamber for Pruitt,” “contracting with a firm whose stated goal is to take down Democrats,” and reportedly working to secretly place anti-Paris climate accord op-eds in newspapers, among other things. Sierra Club requested the records to determine if these actions violated rules barring the use of agency money for "self-aggrandizement," "purely partisan" communications, and "covert propaganda." The EPA was recently forced to turn over more than 24,000 pages of documents to the Sierra Club after losing a previous FOIA lawsuit to the organization.

    Pruitt aides have slowed FOIA releases so they can increase vetting of records requests related to his actions. “Top aides to Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency are screening public records requests related to the embattled administrator, slowing the flow of information released under the Freedom of Information Act — at times beyond what the law allows,” Politico reported on May 6. Based on internal emails obtained by the outlet, the EPA’s political appointees also reprimanded career officials who released public records without letting Pruitt’s aides screen them first. Although other administrations have also requested that political aides be allowed to screen certain releases before they are made public, a FOIA expert quoted by Politico said, “This does look like the most burdensome review process that I've seen documented."

    EPA blocked AP, CNN, E&E News, and Politico from attending a summit on water contaminants and had an AP reporter physically removed from the building. “The Environmental Protection Agency temporarily barred journalists and the public from a national summit Tuesday addressing toxic chemicals contamination in drinking water, a week after top agency officials' effort to delay publication of a study on those chemicals came to light,” Politico reported on May 22. When an AP reporter asked to speak with public affairs personnel to learn why the outlet was barred from the event, “the security guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building,” AP reported. Although the EPA relented after news of the incident spread and allowed the press to cover the second half of the event on May 22, the agency still blocked reporters from covering the subsequent day of the summit on May 23.

  • A timeline of scandals and ethical shortfalls at Scott Pruitt's EPA

    Journalists have uncovered a long list of controversies during Pruitt's time in office

    Blog ››› ››› KEVIN KALHOEFER & EVLONDO COOPER

    This post was updated on 4/24/18 to incorporate additional news reports.

    The Trump presidency has been called the most unethical in modern history, with its scandals continuously dominating the news cycle. And the questionable ethical behavior extends far beyond the White House to cabinet members and the departments and agencies they oversee, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Journalists covering the EPA have unearthed a litany of scandals, conflicts of interest, extravagant expenditures, and ethically dubious actions involving administrator Scott Pruitt and other politically appointed officials. Here is an overview of the reporting on ethical scandals at Pruitt’s EPA, starting a week after he was sworn in and continuing up to the present:

    February 24, 2017, KOKH: Pruitt lied to senators about his use of a private email account. An investigation by Oklahoma City Fox affiliate KOKH revealed that Pruitt lied during his Senate confirmation hearing when he said he did not use a private email account to conduct official business while he was attorney general of Oklahoma, a finding later confirmed by the office of the attorney general. The Oklahoma Bar Association subsequently opened an investigation into the matter, which could lead to Pruitt being disbarred in the state of Oklahoma.

    May 17, 2017, ThinkProgress: An EPA appointee appeared to violate Trump's ethics order on lobbyists. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) sent a letter to Pruitt on May 16 noting that EPA appointee Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett had lobbied both the Senate and the House on EPA regulations as recently as 2016 -- an apparent violation of Trump’s ethics executive order barring former lobbyists from participating in any government matter related to their past lobbying within two years of their appointment.

    June 16, 2017, Bloomberg: Pruitt met with oil executives at Trump’s D.C. hotel, then backed away from a regulation on oil companies. On March 22, Pruitt met with oil executives who sit on the American Petroleum Institute’s board of directors, and less than three weeks later, the EPA announced that it was reconsidering a regulation requiring oil and gas companies to control methane leaks. The meeting took place at the Trump hotel in Washington, D.C., which Time has called a “dealmaker’s paradise” for “lobbyists and insiders.”

    August 28, 2017, E&E News: Pruitt gave a Superfund job to a failed banker whose bank had given loans to Pruitt. In May, Pruitt appointed Albert “Kell” Kelly to head a task force on the EPA’s Superfund program, even though Kelly had been fined $125,000 by federal banking regulators and banned for life from banking activity because of misdeeds committed when he was CEO of Oklahoma-based SpiritBank. Kelly had no previous experience working on environmental issues and, as ThinkProgress reported in February 2018, he had a financial stake in Phillips 66, an oil company that the EPA had deemed responsible for contaminating areas in Louisiana and Oregon. In previous years, Kelly’s bank had given a loan to Pruitt to purchase a share in a minor league baseball team and provided acquisition financing when the team was sold. The bank had also provided three mortgage loans to Pruitt and his wife, as The Intercept reported in December.

    September 20, 2017, Wash. Post: Pruitt's security team drew staff away from criminal investigations. Pruitt’s 24/7 security detail -- the first-ever round-the-clock protection detail for an EPA administrator -- required triple the manpower of his predecessors' security teams and pulled in special agents who would have otherwise spend their time investigating environmental crimes.

    September 26, 2017, Wash. Post: Pruitt spent about $43,000 on a private soundproof booth, violating federal spending law. The Post reported on September 26 that the EPA spent nearly $25,000 to construct a secure, soundproof communications booth in Pruitt’s office, even though there was another such booth on a different floor at EPA headquarters. No previous EPA administrators had such a setup, the Post reported. On March 14, the Post reported that the EPA also spent more than $18,000 on prep work required before the private phone booth could be installed, which put its total cost “closer to $43,000.” On April 16, a Government Accountability Office report found that Pruitt’s use of agency funds for the booth violated federal rules. Agency heads are required to notify Congress in advance when office improvement expenditures exceed $5,000. Two days later, Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told lawmakers that his office is investigating Pruitt’s spending on the booth.

    September 27, 2017, Wash. Post: Pruitt spent $58,000 on charter and military flights. Pruitt took at least four noncommerical and military flights that together cost taxpayers more than $58,000. The most expensive of these was a $36,000 flight on a military jet from Ohio, where Pruitt had joined Trump at an event promoting an infrastructure plan, to New York, where Pruitt then set off on a trip to Italy.

    October 24, 2017, CNN: Pruitt met with a mining CEO, then immediately started clearing the way for his proposed mine. In May, Pruitt sat down with the CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, the company seeking to build the controversial Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska. Just hours after that meeting, he directed the EPA to withdraw an Obama-era proposal to protect the ecologically rich area from certain mining activities. (In January 2018, Pruitt reversed his decision without explanation.)

    December 12, 2017, Wash. Examiner: Pruitt made a costly trip to Morocco to promote natural gas. In December, Pruitt flew to Morocco to promote natural gas exports during talks with Moroccan officials, as first reported by The Washington Examiner. E&E reported that the trip cost nearly $40,000, according to an EPA employee. The Washington Post reported, “The purpose of the trip sparked questions from environmental groups, Democratic lawmakers and some industry experts, who noted that the EPA plays no formal role in overseeing natural gas exports. Such activities are overseen primarily by the Energy Department and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.”

    December 15, 2017, Mother Jones/NY Times: The EPA hired a GOP opposition research firm whose VP had investigated EPA employees. Mother Jones reported that the EPA awarded a $120,000 contract to Definers Corp., a Republican PR firm specializing in opposition research and finding damaging information on individuals, to do what the firm describes as "war room"-style media monitoring. According to The New York Times, Definers Vice President Allan Blutstein had submitted at least 40 Freedom of Information Act requests to the EPA targeting employees that he deemed “resistance" figures critical of Pruitt or the Trump administration. After the contract was exposed, the EPA canceled it.

    February 11, 2018, Wash. Post: Pruitt spent $90,000 on first-class flights and other travel in a single week. During a stretch in early June, Pruitt racked up at least $90,000 in taxpayer-funded travel costs, including first-class, business-class, and military flights. The figure did not include the cost of Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail accompanying him on those trips. One first-class flight was for an overnight trip to New York, where Pruitt made two media appearances to praise Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. According to the Post, “[EPA] records show that wherever Pruitt’s schedule takes him, he often flies first or business class, citing unspecified security concerns.” The Associated Press later reported that, for travel where Pruitt had to foot the bill himself, the EPA head flew coach, according to an EPA official with direct knowledge of Pruitt’s security spending. The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Trey Gowdy (R-SC), demanded documentation and explanation for Pruitt’s first- and business-class work travel, but Pruitt missed the chairman’s March 6 deadline to turn over documents. As of April 11, the EPA still hadn’t provided all requested documents, so Gowdy sent Pruitt another letter demanding the information. Later reporting by The Associated Press found that Pruitt flew coach when taxpayers were not footing the bill.

    February 13, 2018, CBS News: Pruitt flew luxury business class on a foreign airline. Pruitt broke with government rules requiring employees to fly on U.S. carriers. He got a waiver to return home from Milan, Italy, in June on Emirates Airline in what CBS described as “one of the world’s most luxurious business class cabins.”

    February 15, 2018, NY Times: Pruitt met with trucking executives, then preserved a loophole to benefit their company. In May, Pruitt met with executives from Fitzgerald Glider Kits, a company that sells big-rig trucks with retrofitted diesel engines. They were seeking to preserve a loophole that exempted Fitzgerald’s trucks from emission rules. Pruitt announced in November that he would provide the exemption, citing a Fitzgerald-funded Tennessee Tech study that found the company’s trucks emitted no more pollution than trucks with modern emissions systems. But just days after Pruitt made his announcement, EPA staffers published findings that Fitzgerald trucks emit 43 to 55 times as much air pollution as new trucks. And after The New York Times reported on the story, Tennessee Tech's president disavowed the Fitzgerald-funded study and asked the EPA to disregard it. The EPA responded by claiming to the Times that it "did not rely upon the study," even though Pruitt had cited it in making his announcement about the exemption. In April, four Republican senators and 10 Republican House members sent Pruitt a letter asking him to close the loophole.

    February 26, 2018, Politico: The EPA has been hit with a record number of anti-secrecy lawsuits. A Politico analysis found that the EPA has “experienced a huge surge in open records lawsuits since President Donald Trump took office” and that 2017 was “the busiest calendar year by far for open-records cases brought against EPA, according to data stretching back to 1992.” A separate analysis by the Project on Government Oversight found that the EPA has been especially slow in resolving Freedom of Information Act requests.

    March 5, 2018, E&E News/AP: An EPA public affairs official was given the OK to do outside media consulting. John Konkus, a top political aide to Pruitt who works in the EPA's public affairs office, was granted permission to work as a media consultant outside of his agency work. In August, when the arrangement was approved, Konkus had “two likely clients” for his outside work and anticipated adding more in the next six months. The EPA has not disclosed who those clients were. Konkus, a former Trump campaign aide, had been put in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars in grants that the EPA distributes annually -- an "unusual" arrangement, as The Washington Post reported in September. According to the Post, "Konkus has told staff that he is on the lookout for 'the double C-word' — climate change — and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations."

    March 6, 2018, Wash. Post: EPA awarded a bug-sweeping contract to a business associate of Pruitt’s head of security. The head of Pruitt’s security detail, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, advised EPA officials to hire his business associate for a contract to conduct a sweep of Pruitt’s office for concealed listening devices, a source told The Washington Post. Perrotta’s move prompted Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to ask the EPA for documentation that Perrotta obeyed federal conflict-of-interest rules.

    March 8, 2018, AP: Almost half of EPA political appointees have strong industry ties. An analysis conducted by The Associated Press found that “nearly half of the political appointees hired at the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump have strong industry ties. Of 59 EPA hires tracked by the AP over the last year, about a third worked as registered lobbyists or lawyers for chemical manufacturers, fossil fuel producers and other corporate clients that raise the very type of revolving-door conflicts of interests that Trump promised voters he would eliminate. Most of those officials have signed ethics agreements saying they would not participate in actions involving their former clients while working at the EPA. At least three have gotten waivers allowing them to do just that.”

    March 8, 2018, The New Republic: Pruitt appointed the vice president of a polluting company to the EPA’s environmental justice advisory council. On March 7, Pruitt announced the addition of eight new members to the agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, one of whom was Michael Tilchin, a vice president of CH2M Hill, a big engineering firm. The New Republic reported that since February 2017, CH2M Hill’s work at the Hanford Site, a decommissioned nuclear weapons production facility in Washington state, “has sparked at least three accidental releases of plutonium dust, which emits alpha radiation—'the worst kind of radiation to get inside your body,’ according to KING-TV, the Seattle-based news station that’s been investigating the incidents.” Dozens of workers at the site have tested positive for internal plutonium contamination in the wake of the releases.

    March 28, 2018, Politico: EPA signs research agreement with firm tied to GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson. In March of 2017, Pruitt met with executives from Water-Gen, a technology firm based in Israel, at the behest of GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, and Pruitt had a second meeting with a Water-Gen executive in May. In January of this year, the EPA agreed to study Water-Gen's technology, an “atmospheric water generator” that the company claims can pull drinkable water out of the air and thereby provide clean water in remote areas with poor infrastructure. The meeting came to light after activists sued the EPA and forced the agency to produce Pruitt’s calendar. Important details about the arrangement, including Adelson’s relationship with the company, are still unknown.

    March 28, 2018, HuffPost: EPA gave employees talking points based on Pruitt’s lukewarm climate denial. Staffers at the EPA received an email on March 27 from the Office of Public Affairs with a list of eight approved talking points about climate change, echoing lines that Pruitt likes to use when discussing the topic. Point No. 5 is one the administrator has repeated often: "Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue."

    March 29, 2018, ABC News/Bloomberg: Pruitt paid below-market rent for a condo co-owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist. For the first half of 2017, Pruitt lived at a prime Capitol Hill address in a condo co-owned by Vicki Hart, wife of energy lobbyist J. Steven Hart. ABC News reported that, instead of contracting with a real estate broker, Pruitt worked directly with Steven Hart to arrange the $50-a-night rental agreement, with rent having to be paid only for the nights Pruitt stayed in the unit. ABC also reported that Pruitt's daughter used a second room in the condo from May to August, in apparent violation of the lease agreement. The EPA reimbursed the condo association $2,460 after Pruitt’s security team kicked in the door, mistakenly believing his safety was in jeopardy. While Pruitt was living in the condo, and paying well below market rate, the EPA gave its approval for expansion of the Alberta Clipper oil pipeline, directly benefiting Enbridge Inc., a client of Hart’s lobbying firm, according to The New York Times. Also, Steven Hart “was personally representing a natural gas company, an airline giant, and a major manufacturer that had business before the agency at the time he was also renting out a room to Pruitt,” according to The Daily Beast, and the Harts have donated to Pruitt's political campaigns since 2010. After the condo story broke, EPA’s top ethics watchdog said that he didn’t have all the information he needed when he initially determined that Pruitt’s rental arrangement did not violate federal rules, and the federal government’s top ethics official sent a letter to the EPA expressing concern over Pruitt’s living arrangements, travel, and reports that Pruitt retaliated against officials questioning his spending. And on April 21, The Hill reported that Pruitt met with Steven Hart last year on behalf a client, an executive linked to Smithfield Foods, according to a newly filed disclosure from Hart's firm. Hart and Smithfield contend that the meeting was about philanthropy and did not constitute lobbying, but the disclosure still appears to contradict Hart’s earlier statement that he had not lobbied the EPA during 2017 and 2018 as well as Pruitt’s earlier claim that “Hart has no clients that have business before this agency.”

    March 29, 2018, The Intercept: Nominee to head Superfund program is lawyer with long record of defending polluting companies. Pruitt has repeatedly claimed that he wants to prioritize the EPA Superfund program, which cleans up sites contaminated by industry. But Trump’s nominee to oversee the Superfund program, Peter Wright, seems unlikely to help the cause. As The Intercept reported, "For the last quarter-century, he has defended companies responsible for some of the biggest of these industrial disasters, including Dow Chemical, where he has worked for more than 18 years, and Monsanto, where he worked for seven years before that." Nonetheless, Pruitt enthusiastically endorsed Wright's nomination. 

    March 30, 2018, CNN: Taxpayers paid for Pruitt’s 24/7 security detail during his personal trips to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl. Pruitt’s security team accompanied him on trips home to Oklahoma as well as on a family vacation to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl, according to a letter that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General and shared with CNN.

    April 2, 2018, Wash. Post: EPA staff looked into the possibility of leasing a private jet for Pruitt’s travel. Pruitt’s aides contacted NetJets, a company that leases private planes, about "leasing a private jet on a month-to-month basis" to accommodate Pruitt’s travel needs. After receiving NetJets’ quote of about $100,000 a month, senior officials objected and the plan was abandoned.

    April 3, 2018, The Atlantic: The White House told Pruitt he could not give two of his closest aides a pay raise, but he used a loophole to do it anyway. In March, Pruitt sought permission from the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office for substantial pay increases for two of his closest aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp. The White House said no. Pruitt then exploited a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act to increase Greenwalt’s salary from $107,435 to $164,200 and Hupp’s salary from $86,460 to $114,590.

    April 3, 2018, Wash. Post: Pruitt may have violated ethics rules by having his aide research housing arrangements for his family. Millan Hupp, whose salary Pruitt boosted by 33 percent against the White House’s wishes, did considerable legwork to help Pruitt and his wife find a home last summer. This may have been an ethics violation, as federal officials are barred from having their staff do personal tasks for them, according to ethics experts. 

    April 3, 2018, Wash. Post: Pruitt abused a little-known loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act to hire loyalists and ex-lobbyists. In 1977, Congress passed an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act allowing the EPA to hire expert personnel without Senate or White House approval. The section was added to ensure the agency could hire the staff it needed to protect public health, but Pruitt broke from tradition and used the provision to “bring in former lobbyists along with young spokesmen and schedulers,” according to The Washington Post. Pruitt’s controversial hires included loyalists from his home state of Oklahoma, former industry lobbyists such as Nancy Beck, and James Hewitt, the son of radio host and MSNBC personality Hugh Hewitt -- one of Pruitt's most ardent public defenders. The Post reported that "ethics experts say hiring lobbyists through the provision breaks with some of Trump’s ethics rules."

    April 5, 2018, CBS News: Pruitt asked to use vehicle siren during non-emergency, reassigned staffer who objected. Several weeks after taking his position as head of the EPA, Pruitt was stuck in D.C. traffic and asked to use his vehicle's lights and sirens to get to an official appointment more quickly, sources told CBS News. According to CBS, “The lead agent in charge of his security detail advised him that sirens were to be used only in emergencies. Less than two weeks later that agent was removed from Pruitt's detail, reassigned to a new job within the EPA.”

    April 5, 2018, ABC News: EPA improperly paid for repair to Pruitt's condo door, congresswoman says. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), who sits on the subcommittee that oversees the EPA’s budget, took issue with the EPA using agency funds to repair a door in Pruitt’s condo after members of his security detail broke it down when they believed a napping Pruitt was unresponsive. “I know that Congress appropriates money for the EPA to protect human health and the environment – not for repairs to the administrator's residence,” McCollum wrote in a letter to the EPA.

    April 5, 2018, NY Times: Pruitt reassigned and demoted EPA officials who questioned his spending. Four career EPA employees and one Trump administration political appointee were demoted or reassigned after they confronted Pruitt and expressed concerns over his excessive spending on furniture, travel, and his security detail.

    April 5, 2018, Salon: Pruitt was involved in a questionable real estate deal while serving as Oklahoma attorney general. Documents obtained by the nonprofit watchdog group the Center for Media and Democracy revealed that in 2011, Pruitt, then-attorney general of Oklahoma, and his wife flipped a Tulsa home for a $70,000 profit after buying it just days before a court ruled that it had been fraudulently transferred. Kevin Hern, a major campaign donor to Pruitt, bought the house through a dummy corporation. According to Salon, “Evidence suggests that Pruitt planned the quick turnaround on the property in advance.”

    April 5 and 6, 2018, Politico/Politico: Pruitt was late paying his rent and “overstayed his welcome” at the lobbyist-linked condo. Pruitt was sometimes slow in paying rent to his lobbyist landlords. He also stayed in the condo longer than initially agreed. The original $50-a-night rental agreement was supposed to be for just six weeks, but Pruitt ended up using the condo for about six months. Politico reported, “The couple, Vicki and Steve Hart, became so frustrated by their lingering tenant that they eventually pushed him out and changed their locks.”

    April 6 and 9, 2018, Wash. Post/The Atlantic: Doubts cast on Pruitt’s claim that he did not approve controversial pay raises. During an April 4 interview with Fox News correspondent Ed Henry, Pruitt claimed that he did not approve controversial pay raises for his aides Greenwalt and Hupp and had learned about the raises only when the media first reported on them. But on April 6, the Post reported that two EPA officials and a White House official “told The Post that the administrator instructed staff to award substantial pay boosts to both women.” Additionally, administration officials told The Atlantic that an email exchange between Greenwalt and EPA human resources “suggests Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt personally signed off on a controversial pay raise.” The day after The Atlantic’s article came out, EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson took responsibility for the pay raises, issuing a statement reading, “Administrator Pruitt had zero knowledge of the amount of the raises, nor the process by which they transpired. These kind of personnel actions are handled by EPA's HR officials, Presidential Personnel Office and me.”

    April 10, 2018, Wash. Post/Politico: EPA staffers questioned the justification for Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail, and one was then fired. Sens. Whitehouse and Carper sent a letter to the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee calling for a congressional inquiry into Pruitt’s 24/7 security detail. In their letter, the senators cited several internal EPA documents that questioned the rationale for Pruitt’s detail, highlighting in particular a February 14 assessment by the EPA’s Office of Homeland Security that concluded that the justification for Pruitt’s security detail (emphasis in original) “DOES NOT employ sound analysis or articulate relevant ‘threat specific’ information appropriate to draw any resource or level of threat conclusions regarding the protection posture for the Administrator.” Politico reported that one of the EPA career officials who drafted the assessment, Mario Caraballo, was removed from his post on April 10. On the same day, The New York Times also reported that the EPA “has been examining posts on Twitter and other social media about Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator, to justify his extraordinary and costly security measures.” Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Times that the EPA may have violated federal law if the agency was aggressively monitoring Pruitt’s critics.

    April 10, 2018, HuffPost: As EPA head, Pruitt has met with dozens of his former campaign donors. An analysis conducted by the nonprofit MapLight found that Pruitt “has met with more than three dozen organizations that donated to his past campaigns and political committees in the last year,” HuffPost reported. “The donors include major oil and gas companies, electricity providers, coal producers, and conservative think tanks. At least 14 of the meetings were with organizations from Oklahoma, where Pruitt served as attorney general from 2011-16.”

    April 12, 2018, Politico Pro/Mother Jones: EPA staff were concerned about Pruitt’s misleading statements on emissions standards. Emails obtained by Greenpeace via the Freedom of Information Act showed that EPA experts were worried about Pruitt spreading “troubling” and “inaccurate” information in his justification for rolling back Obama-era auto emissions standards. Agency staffers pointed out multiple inaccuracies in Pruitt’s March 20 USA Today op-ed, including Pruitt’s claim that Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards “have pushed manufacturing and jobs to Mexico” -- a claim contradicted by the EPA’s own analysis and many other reports. To support his argument, Pruitt cited an analysis written by an author with no background in CAFE from the now-defunct National Center for Policy Analysis.

    April 12, 2018, NY Times: Lawmakers demand information about Pruitt's travel habits and luxury hotel stays. Five Democratic lawmakers sent Pruitt a letter seeking documents related to additional spending abuses after their staff members met with Pruitt’s dismissed former chief of staff, Kevin Chmielewski. According to the letter, Chmielewski revealed that Pruitt insisted on staying in luxury hotels priced above allowable limits and pressed for flights on airlines not listed on the government’s approved list so that he could earn more frequent flier miles. Chmielewski also told congressional investigators that Pruitt would direct staff to schedule trips for him to fly back home to Oklahoma and desired locations, telling them, “Find me something to do.”

    April 12, 2018, Wash. Post: Pruitt used four different email addresses at EPA. Pruitt has used four different email accounts during his time as EPA administrator, according to an agency official and a letter sent by Sens. Merkley and Carper to the EPA's inspector general. Pruitt’s use of multiple email accounts has prompted “concerns among agency lawyers that the EPA has not disclosed all the documents it would normally release to the public under federal records requests,” according to the Post. On April 17, the Post reported that Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) will examine whether Pruitt is fully complying with public records requests.

    April 17, 2018, Wash. Post: Pruitt upgraded to larger vehicle with bulletproof seat covers. In June last year, Pruitt upgraded his official vehicle to a larger, more high-end Chevy Suburban equipped with bullet-resistant seat covers. Federal records show that the Suburban cost $10,200 to lease for the first year and that the lease included an extra $300 a month worth of additional upgrades.         

    April 18, 2018, NY Times: Pruitt faces multiple investigations into his ethics and use of taxpayer money. Pruitt is the subject of multiple investigations by the EPA’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and the House Oversight Committee, a Times guide to Pruitt’s investigations revealed. The newest investigation, examining Pruitt’s use of his security detail during personal trips to the Rose Bowl, Disneyland, and basketball games, “brings the number of investigations into Mr. Pruitt’s use of taxpayer money and possible ethics violations to 10,” the Times reported.

    April 19, 2018, Reuters: EPA spent $45,000 to fly aides to Australia in advance of a Pruitt trip that was later canceled. Pruitt sent two aides and three security agents on business-class flights to Australia last August, at a cost of about $45,000, to do advance work for a trip the administrator planned to take, EPA officials told Reuters. The trip was canceled when Pruitt decided to travel instead to Texas to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. It has not been rescheduled.

    April 21, 2018, NY Times: Pruitt’s partners in ethically questionable behavior in Oklahoma now work for him at EPA. New York Times reporters examined Pruitt’s career in Oklahoma and identified multiple instances of excessive spending and ethics lapses, noting that “many of the pitfalls he has encountered in Washington have echoes in his past.” The article focused on Pruitt's purchase of a lobbyist-owned home in Oklahoma City when Pruitt was a state senator. According to real estate and other public records, Pruitt purchased the home “at a steep discount of about $100,000” from its prior price through a shell company formed with his business partner and law school friend, Kenneth Wagner. Pruitt did not disclose the house in his financial disclosure forms at the time, “a potential violation of the state’s ethics rules,” according to the Times. Years later, when he was the state's attorney general, Pruitt awarded more than $600,000 worth of state contracts to Wagner’s law firm from 2011 to 2017. Another business associate, Albert Kelly, led the bank that issued the mortgage for the home. After taking the reins at the EPA, Pruitt gave high-ranking positions within the agency to both Wagner and Kelly.

  • Alliance Defending Freedom is working to keep LGBTQ people from adopting children

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN & REBECCA DAMANTE

    Lawyers and allied attorneys from influential anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have been working to pass and defend legislation in at least five states that allows child welfare agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people, among others, in adoption and foster care. In 2017, three states passed anti-LGBTQ adoption laws, and a sweeping anti-LGBTQ religious exemptions law in Mississippi also included provisions about adoption and foster care. Georgia’s state Senate passed a similar bill in February, to be considered by its House, and at least three other states are considering similar bills this year.

  • Recent reporting on violence against trans inmates illustrates the dangers of Trump administration rescinding protections

    Anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom is negotiating with the Trump administration to undo Obama-era guidelines protecting transgender inmates

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The Trump administration is considering undoing protections for incarcerated transgender people after reportedly being in “negotiations” with anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Transgender inmates are frequently housed with members of the opposite gender and experience the highest reported incidence of sexual violence in prisons and jails. The dangers they face are illustrated by a number of recent media reports on lawsuits trans women have filed regarding their treatment while incarcerated.

    On January 4, The Dallas Morning News reported that ADF is representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The suit demands that the bureau “remove all transgender inmates” from a female-only prison in Fort Worth, TX. In an effort to settle the lawsuit, ADF is “in negotiations with the federal government” over undoing policies that protect transgender inmates. The article predicted that the Trump administration was “likely to undo” those policies. ADF lawyer Gary McCaleb, who has also been active in ADF’s work against transgender student equality in schools, told The Dallas Morning News that he was “pretty confident” that the BOP would change some of its transgender inmate protections, particularly on the issue of whether transgender women are housed with non-trans prisoners. ADF’s work here is just one piece of its relentless campaign against LGBTQ equality.

    In weighing whether to remove protections for incarcerated trans people, ADF and the Trump administration will likely be taking aim at two pieces of Obama-era guidance. One is a January 18, 2017, “Transgender Offender Manual,” which gave guidance on the treatment of transgender inmates and sought to “ensure the Bureau of Prisons (Bureau) properly identifies, tracks, and provides services to the transgender population.” The other guidance likely to be affected is the Justice Department’s 2012 standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA) that require detention facilities to “incorporate unique vulnerabilities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and gender nonconforming inmates into training and screening protocols.” Those rules say that “in deciding whether to assign a transgender or intersex inmate to a facility for male or female inmates, … the agency shall consider on a case-by-case basis whether a placement would ensure the inmate’s health and safety, and whether the placement would present management or security problems.”

    According to Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern, transgender protections under PREA can work as “a mechanism through which trans inmates essentially sue prisons for violating their rights under federal law.” Thus, the attempts by ADF and the Trump administration to alter those policies could affect transgender inmates’ ability to sue for inhumane treatment.

    Recent coverage of a number of lawsuits filed by transgender women who reported sexual and physical violence and harassment in prisons and jails demonstrates the countless hardships transgender inmates encounter. In November, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that a transgender woman filed a lawsuit against the county and jail officials after she was “placed in a male holding cell” in Allegheny County, PA. The woman was “raped and physically assaulted by [an] inmate -- despite her cries for help and seeking assistance through the cell’s emergency call button.” The woman also said she was “harassed physically and called derogatory names” and had men watch her shower and strip-search her.

    On January 5, the Associated Press reported that a transgender woman incarcerated in Illinois “is seeking a rarely granted transfer to a female prison” after experiencing “sexual assault, taunting and beatings” in male prisons. Her lawsuit described “how guards and fellow inmates would regularly single her out for brutal treatment,” saying “that guards made her and another transgender inmate perform sex acts on each other as the guards hurled slurs and laughed.” The AP reported on another filing from her lawyers that said it had been “devastating psychologically” for her to be unable to present “herself as a female” while incarcerated. The article noted the “greater risk of abuse” for trans inmates, including that “nearly 40 percent reported being victims of sexual misconduct by other inmates and guards — compared to around 4 percent of the general prison reporting such abuse.”

    On that same day, Reuters reported that the state of Massachusetts “asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a transgender woman” who is housed in a men’s prison. In her lawsuit, the woman said that she has been subjected “to strip searches by male guards” who “routinely groped” her and forced her “to shower in the presence of male inmates.” In yet another January report, the New York Post wrote that a transgender woman who was incarcerated in the notoriously violent Rikers Island jail complex is suing New York City and correction officials after being “beaten so severely by several guards that they broke her jaw, knocked out teeth and left her with two black eyes.”

    In December, Aviva Stahl wrote a piece for The Village Voice, titled “New York City Jails Still Can’t Keep Trans Prisoners Safe,” analyzing the state of incarcerated transgender people in the city's jails. Stahl’s report noted that advocates say the city’s Department of Correction has failed to protect transgender prisoners and that “some trans women have been denied entry” into the city’s Transgender Housing Unit (THU) or “been transferred into male facilities after their external genitalia were observed in medical exams.” Stahl noted that these failures are violations “of national prison anti-rape standards,” the very standards that could be affected by the negotiations between the ADF and the Trump administration. The article added that transgender people have “the highest reported incidence of sexual violence of any demographic group studied, more than eight times the rate for prisoners overall,” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A 2007 study found an even higher rate for transgender women: “59 percent of transgender women housed in men’s prisons had been sexually abused while incarcerated, as compared to 4 percent of non-transgender inmates in men’s prisons.”

    These abuses are happening even with the Obama-era protections in place. If ADF is successful in getting the Trump administration to rescind these limited protections, trans lives and bodies will be at still further risk.

  • Pruitt’s war on the press continues as EPA hires firm to create media-tracking "war room"

    Mother Jones reports on EPA’s contract with a Republican firm that specializes in oppo research

    Blog ››› ››› EVLONDO COOPER


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    While Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt enjoys being feted by conservative and alt-right media outlets such as Fox and Friends and Breitbart.com, he and his top aides at EPA are openly hostile toward other journalists. An investigative report published by Mother Jones demonstrates just how committed Pruitt is to waging and winning his war against the press.

    Reporters Rebecca Leber, Andy Kroll, and Russ Choma write about the EPA hiring a GOP-linked public relations firm, Definers Corp., to track and influence media coverage of the agency. From their December 15 article:

    According to federal contracting records, earlier this month Pruitt’s office inked a no-bid $120,000 contract with Definers Corp., a Virginia-based public relations firm founded by Matt Rhoades, who managed Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Following Romney’s defeat, Rhoades established America Rising, an ostensibly independent political action committee that works closely with the Republican National Committee and Republican candidates to mine damning information on opponents. Other higher-ups at Definers include former RNC research director Joe Pounder, who’s been described as “a master of opposition research,” and senior vice president Colin Reed, an oppo-research guru billed as “among the leaders of the war on [Sen. Elizabeth] Warren.”

    The PR firm will equip the EPA with sophisticated “war room”-style media technology, the story reports:

    The company also specializes in using the press and social media to “validate your narrative.” According to the company’s website, one of the tools to help do this is its “Definers Console” media-tracking technology. Reed said his firm contracted with Pruitt’s office at the EPA, which is the first governmental client to pay for the Definers Console. The technology promises “war room”-style media monitoring, analysis, and advice, according to marketing materials. A brochure for the Console assures users that they will be able to “monitor for potential crises, as well as to track their message dissemination, relevant responses to their messaging, and what competitors’ actions have been.”

    Media Matters has previously reported on Trump officials’ tendency to appear on far-right and right-wing outlets and stations. Pruitt has been a key player in this trend; during his first six months at the EPA, he gave more interviews to Fox News than to all other major television networks combined.

    At the same time, Pruitt’s EPA has publicly displayed hostility toward reporters at mainstream outlets. In late October, New York Times reporter Eric Lipton asked for comment on a story about the agency’s decision to make it harder to track the health consequences of certain industrial chemicals. EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman emailed this response: “No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece. The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

    In September, Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker co-wrote a story about flooded toxic waste sites in Houston. The EPA then made the unprecedented move of criticizing the reporter by name in a press release:  “Unfortunately, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story.”

    Pruitt's EPA has also barred reporters from events, dropped them from press release distribution lists, and refused to give them his schedule.

    Pruitt’s decision to hire Definers Corp. again demonstrates his willingness to go all-in on the Trump administration’s larger campaign to manipulate and undermine the free press.

    The backing of this high-tech media firm will empower Pruitt to continue rebuffing basic public transparency, spinning the consequences of his deregulatory agenda, and muddying his climate science denial. The press will need to be ever vigilant, even while it's under attack.

  • It's not just Masterpiece Cakeshop: Alliance Defending Freedom is attacking nearly every aspect of LGBTQ equality

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    On December 5, anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) will argue before the Supreme Court in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case on behalf of a baker who refused to serve a gay couple. ADF is a highly influential, right-wing legal group that has worked to impact policy at the local, state, national, and international level, from working to ban transgender students from using the restrooms that align with their gender identity to helping write and defend the country’s most sweeping anti-LGBTQ state law in Mississippi.

  • Russian propaganda on Twitter is infiltrating fake news websites

    Fake news websites cited Russian social media accounts, including @TEN_GOP, to attack Muslims, defend Trump against perceived enemies, and attack the press

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Fake news websites have cited multiple Twitter accounts likely run by Russian operatives in articles they’ve posted, undoubtedly helping the accounts’ backers sow discord in the United States.

    On October 17, the Russian publication RBC published a report on the Internet Research Agency, a Russian firm tied to the Kremlin, and how it impacted the 2016 election via social media platforms. Included in that report were the usernames of multiple Twitter accounts that these operatives used, the most prominent being @TEN_GOP. Other publications have also reported on other Twitter and Facebook accounts that these operatives used. Twitter will reportedly tell Congress that it has since discovered 2,752 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency.

    Hyperpartisan websites known to push fake news have repeatedly cited some of these accounts in their articles (specifically @Pamela_Moore13, @USA_Gunslinger, @10_GOP, @Crystal1Johnson, and @Jeblary2016), as the accounts’ tweets can align with these websites’ agendas, and the pieces have then been shared on social media. Last December, multiple fake news websites cited a claim from the account @Pamela_Moore13 that Minnesota Muslims “want Sharia law.” Facebook users then shared the articles, with some commenters demanding that the subjects “be deported” and claiming that they “DO NOT BELONG IN THIS COUNTRY.” Combined, those articles received over 20,000 Facebook engagements, according to social media analytics website BuzzSumo. A fake news website also cited the @Pamela_Moore13 account to attack Starbucks for promising to hire refugees, and the piece was also shared on Facebook and Twitter.

    Fake news websites also prominently cited these accounts to praise or defend President Donald Trump, with the pieces shared on social media. A fake news website cited a comment from the alleged Russian account @USA_Gunslinger that “this video of crowds in Poland cheering the arrival of @realDonaldTrump makes me so proud to be American” to claim that Poland was “ecstatic” for Trump to visit the country. Fake news websites also cited @Pamela_Moore13 to defend Trump’s mass firing of U.S. attorneys in articles that were then shared on some Facebook pages. Such sites also cited the account to push Trump’s false claim that Trump had wiretapped Trump Tower.

    Most often, these alleged Russian accounts were employed to attack Trump’s perceived enemies, with the results again being shared on social media. Fake news websites and others websites cited one of the accounts to accuse former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of colluding with Russia and to claim that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) (already a target via @TEN_GOP) wanted Sharia law and had attacked former FBI Director James Comey. They also targeted former President Barack Obama, citing the same Russian account to claim that Obama tried to sabotage Trump, and used that same account to accuse former national security adviser Susan Rice of “felonies.” YourNewsWire, a fake news website accused of being a Russian proxy, cited that same account to attack former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Some of these articles received thousands of Facebook engagements.

    Additionally, hyperpartisan websites cited the Russian accounts to:

    Combined, these fake news websites' articles citing alleged Russian accounts had at least 140,000 Facebook engagements, according to BuzzSumo.

    Non-fake news websites also cited some of these alleged Russian accounts, along with other alleged Russian accounts @tpartynews and @lgbtunitedcom. Far-right blog The Gateway Pundit repeatedly cited @Pamela_Moore13 to hype a Trump rally in North Carolina, defend Trump’s firings of U.S. attorneys, identify a supposed Muslim gunman, and compare Democrats to ISIS. Another outlet, the conspiracy-minded Infowars, cross-posted pieces citing @10_GOP to hype the St. Louis police protest and @Pamela_Moore13 to push a hashtag calling for the firing of Trump aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Other outlets that cited these alleged Russian accounts included Breitbart, The Blaze, RedState, the Washington Examiner, Fox News (multiple times, including a Fox News columnist retweeting one of the accounts), The Telegraph, The Washington Post, Vox, HuffPost, and The Associated Press.

    It's obvious that hyperpartisan websites acted as a multiplier for the influence of these alleged Russian accounts, as they did with @TEN_GOP, giving them a reach they may not have had otherwise and thus aiding the Russians’ likely goal of ensuring tumult in the country.

  • Fox News has ignored Whitefish’s $300 million no-bid contract to help restore power in Puerto Rico

    Meanwhile, CNN and MSNBC have each aired 15 segments on the contract

    Blog ››› ››› KEVIN KALHOEFER


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    News reports have raised numerous questions about the $300 million contract that Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) awarded to Whitefish Energy Holdings, a relatively inexperienced then-two-person firm based in Montana, to rebuild power lines in Puerto Rico. Members of Congress from both parties have called for investigations into the contract. Mainstream media outlets, including MSNBC and CNN, have given the story widespread coverage, but as of midday on October 27, Fox News had yet to even mention the Whitefish contract.

    Reports detail controversial $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy, a two-person Montana firm, to help restore power in Puerto Rico

    E&E News first reported on Whitefish Energy Holdings’ contract with PREPA in stories on October 6 and October 9. E&E News revealed that PREPA decided not to take advantage of a mutual aid program among 1,100 electric companies that could have helped to quickly restore power on the island, where about 75 percent of residents still have no electricity. Instead, PREPA awarded a contract to the Montana-based firm, which at the time had only two full-time staffers. From the October 6 article:

    The American Public Power Association, based in Washington, confirmed today that the troubled Puerto Rico public utility that serves more than 3 million people on the island has decided not to request assistance from the group of 1,100 U.S. electricity companies standing ready to help.

    The association coordinates mutual aid disaster assistance for U.S. public power companies, which include the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). "The request for help was not activated," said group spokeswoman Meena Dayak. "We do have people who are ready to help."

    Nearly 90 percent of Puerto Rico's electricity customers remain without power. Instead of activating a mutual aid arrangement that might have speeded up recovery time, the utility turned to Whitefish Energy Holdings, a small contractor based in Montana, to coordinate outside help. The utility has given no explanation for that decision.

    In the following days, Utility Dive, The Weather Channel, and Montana Public Radio also published stories on Whitefish’s questionable contract. On October 19, Whitefish put out a press release announcing that the contract was worth $300 million, which was followed by additional reports by The Associated Press and The Washington Post. The contract, which is nearly 300 times larger than Whitefish’s next-largest project and the largest restoration contract in Puerto Rico, granted Whitefish an initial payment of $3.7 million for “mobilization of personnel and equipment” and allows Whitefish to charge hourly rates for workers' time that NPR described as "eye-popping."

    A leaked copy of the contract also revealed that it bars government agencies from auditing or reviewing “cost and profit elements” of the deal and prevents PREPA from making "any claim against Contractor related to delayed completion of work."

    Whitefish Energy has connections to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Trump campaign donor

    The Post reported on October 23 that Whitefish Energy is based in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, that Zinke and Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski know one another, and that Zinke’s son worked for the company during one summer. Post reporters wrote that “Zinke’s office said he had no role in Whitefish securing the contract for work in Puerto Rico” and “Techmanski also said Zinke was not involved,” but they also reported that Techmanski had reached out to Zinke’s office after procuring the contract.

    On October 24, Buzzfeed reported that Joe Colonnetta, the head of HBC Investments, one of Whitefish Energy’s major funding sources, had donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, but stated, “It’s unclear whether Colonnetta, who did not respond to a request for comment, has specific connections to Whitefish, or whether his stake in Whitefish Energy is simply a business investment.”

    The revelations about PREPA’s contract have attracted widespread media coverage, as have a Twitter spat between the company and the mayor of San Juan, and the connections between Whitefish and Zinke. In the wake of this press coverage, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have called for investigations into the contract.

    Yet Fox News has remained silent about the controversial contract, even as the other major cable news networks have covered it extensively.

    Fox News has yet to cover Whitefish story, while Fox Business hosted Whitefish spokesman to defend the contract

    Media Matters reviewed cable news coverage of the Whitefish story from October 6, the date of the initial report on Whitefish’s contract, to noon ET of October 27 and found that Fox News had not aired a single segment on the story.

    During that period, the Fox Business Network aired just two segments on the story. The network first mentioned the contract during a headline rundown on the October 25 episode of FBN:am, in which the hosts expressed surprise that a company of Whitefish’s size received such a large contract.

    The second segment was on the October 27 episode of Mornings with Maria. Guest host Megan McDowell, Fox News correspondent Lea Gabrielle, and Republican strategist and former Trump surrogate Erin Elmore interviewed Whitefish spokesman Ken Luce. The five-and-a-half-minute interview included softball questions such as: “What do you say to these investigations? Are they warranted?”, “When did the company hire you?”, “What are the facts that you think aren’t being reported?”, and “How well and how is Whitefish financed for this?”

    Fox Business has a track record of uncritically providing a platform for companies to respond to negative press coverage.

    CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 30 segments on the Whitefish contract

    Fox News’ lack of coverage stands in stark contrast to the other major cable networks’ extensive coverage of the controversial contract. Between October 6 and noon ET of October 27, CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 30 segments on the Whitefish story.

    MSNBC aired 15 segments on Whitefish’s contract with PREPA, including an interview with Luce on the October 27 episode of MSNBC Live with Stephanie Ruhle that was much more hard-hitting than Fox Business' interview with Luce. Unlike the Fox Business hosts, anchor Ruhle asked Luce how Whitefish won the contract, as well as how Whitefish justifies contract provisions that bar government audits and that prohibit PREPA from making claims for delayed work, adding, “How does that serve the people of Puerto Rico and the American people?”

    MSNBC also aired a segment on the October 24 episode of MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson that featured one of the authors of the October 23 Washington Post story, Aaron Davis, who explained, “Whitefish Energy … has never done anything quite on this scale, or even remotely close to this scale. And now they have, according to the company yesterday, 280 employees and subcontractors working in Puerto Rico. Now compare that to the day after Hurricane Irma came through Florida, and there were 16,000 utility workers who were at the border of Florida waiting to come in under a mutual aid agreement. We don’t think it could have been that many waiting on a boat ready to get into Puerto Rico, but there could have been, according to many people we talked to, thousands. And there wasn’t.”

    CNN also aired 15 segments that mentioned Whitefish's contract, including a report on the October 25 episode of CNN Newsroom in which correspondent Rene Marsh discussed the details of the contract and noted similarities between statements issued by Whitefish and Zinke’s office.

    CNN also ran an on-the-ground report by correspondent Bill Weir that first aired on the October 19 episode The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer -- and was aired on the network seven additional times -- that featured a brief interview in which Weir asked Techmanski how his company won the contract and who initiated the contact between Whitefish and PREPA.

    UPDATE: After the original timeframe of the study and publication, Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier aired a brief report on the Whitefish story on October 27 that focused on the White House and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's claims to have had "nothing to do with" Whitefish being awarded the contract to help rebuild the electrical grid in Puerto Rico. Fox News Tonight also aired a segment on the story late the same night.

    Methodology: Media Matters searched SnapStream for mentions of “Whitefish” or “white fish” in coverage (4 a.m. to midnight ET) on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and Fox Business Network from October 6, the date of the initial story on Whitefish’s contract, to noon of October 27. The interview that first aired on CNN’s Situation Room was subsequently aired seven more times and was counted as eight segments.

  • Report: Sean Hannity’s attacks on the press are concerning colleague Chris Wallace

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    According to a recent article by The Associated Press, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace is put off by his colleagues' support for President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press. As the AP notes, it’s not hard to extrapolate that one of the hosts Wallace is upset with is Sean Hannity, who “is the president’s fiercest defender on Fox,” and often references the “destroy Trump media” and “fake news” in his campaign to delegitimize the press for the sake of defending Trump.

    In the October 19 article, the AP reported that Wallace takes issue with the way many of his Fox colleagues attack the press, noting that while Wallace “doesn't call out press-bashing colleagues by name,” “it's no secret that prime-time star Sean Hannity is the president’s fiercest defender on Fox.” Citing a Media Matters study on Hannity’s authoritarian approach to defending Trump, the AP explained that “Hannity criticized the press in 90 percent of his monologues from May 15 to Sept. 1, according to the liberal media watchdogs Media Matters for America, and used the term  ‘fake news’ 67 times.”

    The AP’s reporting shows that even Hannity’s colleagues are starting to get fed up with his sycophancy and propaganda, and for that reason and many others, Media Matters has been taking action to address and highlight Hannity’s toxic distortion of reality.

    From the October 19 Associated Press article:

    Sunday host Chris Wallace generally lives in peaceful co-existence with Fox News Channel's opinion folks, except when he hears some of them echo President Donald Trump's criticism of the news media.

    Fake news? He's fighting back.

    "It bothers me," Wallace said in an interview. "If they want to say they like Trump, or that they're upset with the Democrats, that's fine. That's opinion. That's what they do for a living.

    "I don't like them bashing the media, because oftentimes what they're bashing is stuff that we on the news side are doing. I don't think they recognize that they have a role at Fox News and we have a role at Fox News. I don't know what's in their head. I just think it's bad form."

    [...]

    He doesn't call out press-bashing colleagues by name. It's no secret that prime-time star Sean Hannity is the president's fiercest defender on Fox, with frequent references to the "destroy Trump media." Hannity criticized the press in 90 percent of his monologues from May 15 to Sept. 1, according to the liberal media watchdogs Media Matters for America, and used the term "fake news" 67 times. [The New York Times, 10/19/17]

  • GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore suggested 9/11 was punishment for "legitimized sodomy," but top media outlets just call him a "firebrand"

    Moore has called homosexuality “the same thing” as having sex with a cow, repeatedly asserted that “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” and was kicked off Alabama’s Supreme Court for discriminating against same-sex couples

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    On September 26, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who has compared homosexuality to having sex with a cow and insists that “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” won his state’s Republican primary for its open Senate seat. Many media outlets failed to contextualize his extreme anti-LGBTQ views -- though most noted his infamous removal from Alabama’s Supreme Court for refusing to accept the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage -- and instead whitewashed him as simply a “firebrand.”

  • In reporting on DACA, outlets are uncritically lifting up anti-immigrant hate and nativist groups 

    ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    After reports surfaced that President Donald Trump planned to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, media outlets covering the story resorted to quoting representatives of the hate groups Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), as well as the nativist group NumbersUSA. Media outlets failed to properly contextualize these groups’ racist origins and practices, inappropriately characterizing them as reasonable voices in the debate over DACA.