Under Pruitt, EPA comms staff dismissed employees’ complaints as ‘faux outrage’

The Environmental Protection Agency’s communications staff led a coordinated effort to discredit two former career employees who publicly criticized the policies of former agency administrator Scott Pruitt, according to recently released emails.

The advocacy organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Group, which represented one of the EPA employees in court, released emails Thursday that it got through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Before his retirement in March 2017, Michael Cox, a former climate change adviser with more than 25 years of experience at the EPA, wrote a letter to Pruitt criticizing his leadership of the agency.

Following Cox’s retirement, former EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told reporters that Cox had shown “faux outrage” over Pruitt’s leadership and said he would be leaving with a “six-figure, taxpayer-funded pension.”

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Cox sought to correct the record in a September 2017 email to Wilcox, and explained that his pension, minus health care benefits and taxes, actually came out to just over $39,000 a year.

“I am certainly not complaining about the pension, but want you to understand that stating I have a six-figure pension is wrong and feeds into the false narrative of over-compensated federal employees,” Cox said in his email to Wilcox.

The emails released by PEER also show the EPA press office continued with this line of messaging when Elizabeth Southerland, a career senior executive with more than 30 years of experience at the agency, said agency actions under Pruitt had put public health and the environment at greater risk before retiring in last September.

In an email from July 2017, Wilcox told other EPA communications staff he pitched a story to conservative news outlets that Southerland only decided to separate from the agency because she was eligible for her pension.

“Earlier this spring, there was an EPA employee who was eligible for retirement and claimed she was quitting because of Trump and his proposed budget, when in reality she was just retiring because she was eligible for her pension. Of course, the liberal Washington Post and other outlets jumped on the news,” Wilcox wrote.

“My guess is that once WaPo writes about Elizabeth Southerland, the story will get legs so we wanted to get in front of it all instead of having another controversy like the Mike Cox stuff,” he added.

In his email to Wilcox, Cox also took issue with the agency characterizing his and Southerland’s opinions about Pruitt and the Trump administration as fake.

“It is true that the criticism and comments I have made about the direction of the EPA are my opinions. However, they are based on over 25 years of working at EPA and, in the case of Ms. Southerland, over 40 years,” Cox wrote. “I would not characterize my opinions as ‘faux outrage.’ If the feedback and support from career EPA employees that I received after my retirement is any gauge, I think I nailed it.”

In a statement, Southerland, whom PEER has provided with legal representation, said she remains proud of her service at the EPA, and praised the release of the agency emails under FOIA.

“These documents confirm what I suspected: Political appointees in the administrator’s office decided to discredit me as soon as my retirement speech was publicly released,” Southerland said.

PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein said the emails produced until the FOIA lawsuit demonstrate “distasteful disinformation campaigns” were run against former agency employees.

Most of EPA communications staff copied in the emails, including Liz Bowman, Jahan Wilcox and Samantha Dravis, as well as former Assistant White House Press Secretary Kelly Love, have left their government positions this year.

“Mr. Wilcox no longer works at EPA,” EPA spokesman John Konkus told Federal News Radio. “We are focused on the future and carrying out President Trump’s positive environmental agenda.”

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