Oversight in Action: Offshore Drilling, Cyberattacks at the FCC, and More Questionable Behavior at the EPA

Zinke’s Offshore Drilling Plan:

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exempted Florida from the Trump administration’s proposed offshore drilling plan following a meeting with Governor Rick Scott. Given the potential environmental consequences this decision has on all coastal states involved, American Oversight submitted FOIAs to find out why Secretary Zinke exempted Florida and whether or not upcoming elections had any influence on the decision. When Interior didn’t respond to our request in a timely manner, we sued to obtain those records. Politico, as well as many Florida-based publications, reported on our lawsuit.

Group files suit to show whether offshore drilling announcement was supposed to boost Scott

Zinke in January proposed drilling in most federal waters, including those off the Florida coast. But he later announced that Florida was “off the table” after meeting with Gov. Rick Scott, who later filed to run for Senate against Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

American Oversight said Wednesday it was suing for records to shed light on the department’s decision to exempt Florida. The lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington seeks emails and other records related to offshore drilling in 14 coastal states, including Florida.

Zinke’s decision to exclude Florida as Scott was preparing an election bid for the Senate “looks like more than a coincidence,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, in a statement first provided to POLITICO.

No Evidence of a Cyberattack at the FCC:

American Oversight obtained emails showing that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) claims of an alleged cyber attack on a comments section about the decision to overturn Net Neutrality may have been false. Gizmodo reported on the emails and the speculation surrounding this event. See the emails we obtained here.

FCC Emails Show Agency Spread Lies to Bolster Dubious DDoS Attack Claims

Internal emails reviewed by Gizmodo lay bare the agency’s efforts to counter rife speculation that senior officials manufactured a cyberattack, allegedly to explain away technical problems plaguing the FCC’s comment system amid its high-profile collection of public comments on a controversial and since-passed proposal to overturn federal net neutrality rules.

The FCC has been unwilling or unable to produce any evidence an attack occurred—not to the reporters who’ve requested and even sued over it, and not to U.S. lawmakers who’ve demanded to see it. Instead, the agency conducted a quiet campaign to bolster its cyberattack story with the aid of friendly and easily duped reporters, chiefly by spreading word of an earlier cyberattack that its own security staff say never happened.

Pruitt Aides Resign:

We’ve been investigating Scott Pruitt’s unethical behavior at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and his pattern of using his position for perks like first-class travel, expensive office renovations, and a $50-per-night lobbyist-owned condo. Now reports have been surfacing that Scott Pruitt has been having his aides do things like help with his housing search, picking up his dry cleaning, searching for Ritz-Carlton lotion, and helping his daughter secure a White House internship. Pruitt’s also used an aide and personal contacts to try to obtain a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife, both of which may have violated ethics rules.

Two Pruitt Aides Resign as E.P.A. Ethics Questions Continue:

The departures come as Mr. Pruitt faces fresh questions about his management decisions. On Monday, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, which is conducting one of 12 investigations into his spending and ties to lobbyists, released a partial transcript of an interview with Ms. Hupp showing that Mr. Pruitt asked her to do personal errands for him, including apartment hunting and asking the Trump International Hotel if Mr. Pruitt could purchase a used mattress.

Emails obtained under public records laws also showed that Mr. Pruitt had asked Sydney Hupp, Ms. Hupp’s sister and the administrator’s former scheduler, to facilitate a meeting with the chief executive of Chick-fil-A regarding a “potential business opportunity.” That turned out to be a possible franchise for Mr. Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn.

NAFTA Renegotiation Missteps:

American Oversight has been investigating the Trump administration’s poor efforts to renegotiate NAFTA. The mismanagement of these negotiations could put jobs at risk and the public has a right to know what the administration is up to. However, emails we obtained show that communications with business and within  USTR itself are so convoluted that key stakeholders are being left out of the process, New York Times reports.

White House’s Nafta Approach Frustrates Businesses, Panicked Emails Show

Documents show corporations and trade groups — such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, or NAM — struggling to get their voices heard within a supposedly business-friendly administration and sending increasingly panicked emails to the United States trade representative’s office about its approach to rewriting the pact.

Throughout last spring and summer, high-level trade negotiators repeatedly canceled meetings with the chamber, instead finally sending a 24-year-old deputy to meet with a delegation that was expected to include representatives from more than 50 of the largest American companies and organizations, including Walmart, U.P.S., the Walt Disney Company, General Electric, General Motors, Caterpillar and Boeing.

Congress Demands Answers on Scott Pruitt’s Interference with FOIA and the FCC’s False Claims:

Citing American Oversight’s lawsuit, Rep. Elijah Cummings is demanding answers related to Scott Pruitt’s attempts to delay and interfere with FOIA requests. American Oversight submitted FOIAs requesting the same records as Rep. Cummings, as part of our parallel investigations initiative. Similarly, Senators are demanding answers about the FCC’s alleged cyber attack claims. This is what happens when watchdog groups and members of Congress work in tandem to demand documents and accountability.

House Democrat accuses Scott Pruitt of delaying public-records requests by answering Obama-era ones first

The “first-in, first out” tactic for requests made through the Freedom of Information Act is yet another example of the EPA restricting what records make their way into the public eye since Pruitt has taken office. That public-records policy was described in a letter sent Monday to Pruitt by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, which requested documents from the administrator.

That committee’s investigation into Pruitt is just one of at least a dozen federal inquiries the EPA chief is facing over his questionable spending and management decisions at the agency.

His tenure has also drawn the scrutiny of journalists, environmentalists and other members of the public who have filed thousands of FOIA requests with the EPA since Pruitt has taken office and attempted to unravel environmental rules put in place by the previous administration.

Senators Set Deadline for Ajit Pai’s FCC to Open Up About Its DDoS Attack Claims

In a letter shared with Gizmodo, Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) tell the FCC that they would like to see evidence of either cyberattack beyond “initial internal analyses,” such as subsequent government or third-party security firm investigations. They also ask the FCC to clarify on what grounds they determined the comment system downtime on either date was best classified as a cyberattack, as well as ask Pai whether he is cooperating in full with the Government Accountability Office (GOA) investigation to determine exactly what happened.

It’s been clear for some time that the FCC’s narrative on the alleged cyberattack is full of holes and outright fallacies; the agency has refused to release unredacted emails about the 2017 incident, meaning just what key personnel like Pai knew and when is being hidden from the public. Those records may prove crucial to determine whether the agency’s revocation of the net neutrality rules was pushed through as the agency knowingly lied to the public.