EPA under investigation for violating anti-lobbying rule: Union official

PHOTO: The exterior of the headquarters of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in downtown Washington, D.C., April 2, 2017.PlayKristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa via AP
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A federal government watchdog is investigating whether the Environmental Protection Agency broke an anti-lobbying law when it tweeted about Democratic efforts to block Senate confirmation of a nominee for a top agency post.

On April 13, the EPA tweeted from its official account about the confirmation of the agency's deputy administrator Andrew Wheeler. The tweet said "The Democrats couldn't block the confirmation of environmental policy expert and former EPA staffer under both a Republican and a Democrat president."

PHOTO: In an April 13, 2017 tweet the EPA seemed to attack Democrats for criticism of its nominee for deputy administrator. U.S. EPA/Twitter
"In an April 13, 2017 tweet the EPA seemed to attack Democrats for criticism of its nominee for deputy administrator."

The Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates whistleblower and other complaints, is looking into whether the tweet violated the Hatch Act. That law says that government employees cannot engage in political or partisan activity while they are at work and specifically says that federal agencies' social media accounts must be politically neutral.

A union official filed a complaint about the tweet and shared an email with ABC News that shows the Office of Special Counsel has assigned someone to investigate the complaint. A spokesman for the Office of Special Counsel confirmed that they received the complaint but said they do not confirm or deny an open investigation.

An EPA spokesman said in a statement that the agency is not aware of an investigation related to the tweet.

“EPA employees strive to comply with all applicable statutory requirements, including the Hatch Act,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in the statement.

PHOTO: Andrew Wheeler during his confirmation hearing to be Deputy Administrator of the EPA before the United States Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, November 8th, 2017.Alex Edelman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
Andrew Wheeler during his confirmation hearing to be Deputy Administrator of the EPA before the United States Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, November 8th, 2017.

The email was first reported in the Washington Post.

The EPA has faced questions over its social media accounts before. In 2015 the Government Accountability Office found that the agency violated a different anti-lobbying and anti-propaganda law by using social media platforms to promote the Waters of the United States rule.

That GAO ruling said that the EPA's social media campaign promoted a message on social media that did not identify the EPA as the source and asked people to contact Congress in opposition to pending legislation.

The Hatch Act has also been a problem in other parts of the administration. White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway was found to have violated the provision when she made an implied endorsement of Senate candidate Roy Moore and advocated for the defeat of his opponent Doug Jones in interviews on Fox News.

The Office of Special Counsel has cited the White House social media director, secretary of Health and Human Services, and commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission for violating the Hatch Act.

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