As many as three members of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) are under investigation for illegal lobbying activities, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspector general’s office has opened an investigation into possible lobbying by CSB chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland and board members Rick Engler and Kristen Kulinowski. All three were appointed by former President Barack Obama.
The investigation was sparked by a complaint the three CSB members tried to persuade attendees of a chemical engineering conference to contact their members of Congress, a source told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
CSB members wanted attendees to urge lawmakers to oppose the Trump administration’s plan to defund the CSB. The conference took place in late March, shortly after President Donald Trump released his “skinny” budget, which called for eliminating the CSB.
“The fact that they have even begun an investigation probably means that there is something in the allegations,” the source told TheDCNF. “They are interviewing all CSB staff who attended the conference.”
Their actions may violate the Anti-Lobbying Act, which makes it illegal for federal officials to engage in “substantial ‘grass roots’ lobbying campaigns” to “pressure members of Congress to support Administration or Department legislative or appropriations proposals,” according to DOJ.
The investigation comes amid increased concerns over CSB’s ability to remain an impartial investigative body. Critics argue CSB has been hijacked by union and environmental activists to push more onerous regulations on industry.
CSB began operating in 1998 to investigate major chemical disaster, like the 2010 BP oil spill and the 2013 Texas fertilizer plant explosion. CSB has no regulatory authority, but does issue recommendations to regulatory agencies after investigating industrial chemical accidents.
TheDCNF previously reported board member Engler colluded with union activists to promote a grassroots campaign to preserve CSB’s funding. Engler is a long-time labor union activist whose email activity suggests he still promotes their campaigns and tries to involve them in regulatory decisions.
E&E News obtained emails in 2016 where Engler admitted to working with the United Steelworkers union and environmental groups to push refinery safety regulations in California.
Chairwoman Sutherland told a reporter in March she and her staff would be “aggressively trying to save the board,” including talking to lawmakers about the agency’s important role.
CSB was recently rocked by scandal. Rafael Moure-Eraso was forced to resign in 2015 amid accusations of mismanagement and mistreatment of whistleblowers.
Trump’s final budget proposal to Congress recommends cutting CSB funding $2 million in 2018, and eliminating the agency the next year. Under this plan, CSB’s budget would decrease from $11 million to $9 million in 2018 before being eliminated.
“In recent years, CSB’s recommendations have also been focused on the need for greater regulation of industry, which has frustrated both regulators and industry,” reads the White House’s budget proposal.
“The pressure to tie investigations to management priorities culminated in whistleblower complaints that led to critical reports issued by both the Environmental Protection Agency Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee,” reads the report. “While CSB’s new leadership is making progress on the previous management challenges, due to the duplicative nature of its work, the Budget recommends eliminating the agency.”
Neither the CSB nor the EPA inspector general’s office returned TheDCNF’s request for comment.
Update: An EPA inspector general’s office spokesman responded to TheDCNF after publication.
“It is the policy of our office to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation,” the inspector general’s spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for the CSB also responded after publication.
“The CSB does not have any knowledge of an investigation of three CSB board members,” the CSB spokeswoman said.