President Trump entered office pledging to cut red tape, and within weeks, he ordered his administration to assemble teams to aggressively scale back government regulations.
But the effort – a signature theme in Trump’s populist campaign for the White House – is being conducted in large part out of public view and often by political appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts.
Most government agencies have declined to disclose information about their deregulation teams. But ProPublica and The New York Times identified 71 appointees, including 28 with potential conflicts, through interviews, public records and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Some appointees are reviewing rules their previous employers sought to weaken or kill, and at least two may be positioned to profit if certain regulations are undone.
The appointees include lawyers who have represented businesses in cases against government regulators, staff members of political dark money groups, employees of industry-funded organisations opposed to environmental rules and at least three people who were registered to lobby the agencies they now work for.
At the Education Department alone, two members of the deregulation team were most recently employed by pro-charter advocacy groups or operators, and one appointee was an executive handling regulatory issues at a for-profit college operator.
So far, the process has been scattershot. Some agencies have been soliciting public feedback, while others refuse even to disclose who is in charge of the review. In many cases, responses to public records requests have been denied, delayed or severely redacted.
The Interior Department has not disclosed the correspondence and calendars for its team. But a review of more than 1,300 pages of handwritten sign-in sheets for guests visiting the agency’s headquarters in Washington found that appointees had met regularly with industry representatives.
Over a four-month period, from February through May, at least 58 representatives of the oil and gas industry signed their names on the agency’s visitor logs before meeting with appointees.
The EPA also rejected requests to release the appointment calendar of the official leading its team – a former top executive for an industry-funded political group – even as she met privately with industry representatives.
And the Defence Department and the Department of Homeland Security provided the titles for most appointees to their review teams, but not names.
When asked for comment about the activities of the deregulation teams, the White House referred reporters to the Office of Management and Budget.
Meghan Burris, a spokeswoman there, said: “As previous administrations have recognised, it’s good government to periodically reassess existing regulations. Past regulatory review efforts, however, have not taken a consistent enough look at regulations on the books.”
With billions of dollars at stake in the push to deregulate, corporations and other industry groups are hiring lawyers, lobbyists and economists to help navigate this new avenue for influence. Getting to the front of the line is crucial, as it can take years to effect regulatory changes.
“Competition will be fierce,” the law firm Clark Hill, which represents businesses pitching the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a marketing memo. “In all likelihood, interested parties will need to develop a multi-pronged strategy to expand support and win pre-eminence over competing regulatory rollback candidates.”
Jane Luxton, a lawyer at the firm, said she advised clients to pay for economic and legal analyses that government agencies, short on staff, could use to expedite changes. She declined to identify the clients.
“You may say this is an agency’s job, but the agencies are totally overloaded,” Luxton said.
On a cloudy, humid day in March, Laura Peterson, a top lobbyist for Syngenta, arrived at the headquarters for the Interior Department. She looped the letter “L” across the agency’s sign-in sheet.
Her company, a top pesticide maker based in Switzerland, had spent eight years and millions of dollars lobbying the Obama administration on environmental rules, with limited success.
But Peterson had an in with the new administration.
Scott Cameron, newly installed at the Interior Department and a member of its deregulation team, had just left a nonprofit he had founded. He had advocated getting pesticides approved and out to market faster. His group counted Syngenta as a financial partner.
The meeting with Peterson was one of the first Cameron took as a new government official.
Neither side would reveal what was discussed. “I’m not sure that’s reporting information I have to give you,” Peterson said.
But lobbying records offered clues.
Syngenta has been one of several pesticide manufacturers pushing for changes to the Endangered Species Act. When federal agencies take actions that may jeopardise endangered animals or plants, they are generally supposed to consult with the Interior Department, which could raise objections.
For decades, the EPA largely ignored this provision when approving new pesticides. But recently, a legal challenge from environmental groups forced its hand – a change that affected Syngenta.
Pesticide lobbyists have been working behind the scenes at agencies and on Capitol Hill to change the provision. Companies have argued that they should be exempt from consulting with the Interior Department because they already undergo EPA approval.
Along with spending millions of dollars on lobbying, they have funded advocacy groups aligned with their cause. Cameron’s nonprofit, the Reduce Risks From Invasive Species Coalition, was one such group for Syngenta.
The organisation says on its website that its goals include reducing “the regulatory burden of the Endangered Species Act on American society by addressing invasive species.” One way to do that is to use pesticides. The nonprofit’s mission includes creating “business opportunities for commercial products and services used to control invasive species.”
Because donations are not publicly reported, it is unclear how much Syngenta has contributed to Cameron’s organisation, but his group has called the pesticide company one of its “generous sponsors.”
Cameron also served on a committee of experts and stakeholders, including Syngenta, that advised the federal government on decisions related to invasive species. At a committee event last July, he said that one of his priorities was “getting biocontrol agents to market faster,” according to meeting minutes.
Paul Minehart, a Syngenta spokesman, said: “Employees regularly engage with those in government that relate to agriculture and our business. Our purpose is to balance serving the public health and environment with enabling farmers’ access to innovation.”
A spokeswoman for the Interior Department did not respond to questions about how Cameron’s relationship with Syngenta might influence his review of regulations.
Under the law, members of the Trump administration can seek ethics waivers to work on issues that overlap with their past business careers. They can also formally recuse themselves when potential conflicts arise.
In many cases, the administration has refused to say whether appointees to Trump’s deregulation teams have done either.
One such appointee is Samantha Dravis, the chairwoman of the deregulation team at the EPA, who was a top official at the Republican Attorneys General Association. Dravis was also president of the Rule of Law Defence Fund, which brought together energy companies and Republican attorneys general to file lawsuits against the federal government over Obama-era environmental regulations.
The Republican association’s work has been criticised as a vehicle for corporate donors to gain the credibility and expertise of state attorneys general in fighting federal regulations. Donors include the American Petroleum Institute, the energy company ConocoPhillips and the coal giant Alpha Natural Resources.
The Republican association also received funding from Freedom Partners, backed by the conservative billionaires Charles G and David H Koch Dravis worked for that group as well, which recently identified regulations it wants eliminated. Among them are EPA rules relating to clean-water protections and restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.
Liz Bowman, an EPA spokeswoman, declined to say whether Dravis had recused herself from issues dealing with previous employers or their backers, or had discussed regulations with any of them.
“As you will find when you receive Samantha’s calendar, she has met with a range of stakeholders, including nonprofits, industry groups and others, on a wide range of issues,” Bowman said.
Bowman said the calendar could be obtained through a public records request. ProPublica and The Times had already filed a request for records including calendars, but the agency’s response did not include those documents. (An appeal was filed, but the calendar has not yet been released.)
“We take our ethics responsibilities seriously,” Bowman said. “All political staff have had an ethics briefing and know their obligations.”
Addressing the agency’s regulatory efforts, she said, “We are here to enact a positive environmental agenda that provides real results to the American people, without unnecessarily hamstringing our economy.”
At the Agriculture Department, the only known appointee to the deregulation team is Rebeckah Adcock. She previously lobbied the department as a top executive both at CropLife America, a trade association for pesticide makers, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, a trade group for farmers.
The department deals with many issues involving farmers, including crop insurance and land conservation rules, but it would not disclose whether Adcock had recused herself from discussions affecting her past employers.
At the Energy Department, a member of the deregulation team is Brian McCormack, who formerly handled political and external affairs for Edison Electric Institute, a trade association representing investor-owned electrical utilities.
While there, McCormack worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry-funded group. Both organisations fought against rooftop solar policies in statehouses across the country. Utility companies lose money when customers generate their own power, even more so when they are required to pay consumers who send surplus energy back into the grid.
Though the Energy Department does not directly regulate electrical utilities, it does help oversee international electricity trade, the promotion of renewable energy and the security of domestic energy production. After joining the department, McCormack helped start a review of the nation’s electrical grid, according to an agency memo.
Clean-energy advocates fear the inquiry will cast solar energy, which can fluctuate, as a threat to grid reliability. Such a finding could scare off state public utility commissions considering solar policies and serve as a boon for electrical utilities, said Matt Kasper, research director at the Energy and Policy Institute, an environmental group.
Disclosure records show that while McCormack was at Edison, the trade group lobbied the federal government, including the Energy Department, on issues including grid reliability.
The department would not answer questions about McCormack’s involvement with those issues.
Conflicts of interest?
Across the government, at least two appointees to deregulation teams have been granted waivers from ethics rules related to prior jobs, and at least nine others have pledged to recuse themselves from issues related to former employers or clients.
Some of the recusals involve appointees at the Small Business Administration and the Education Department, including Bob Eitel, who leads the education team and was vice president for regulatory legal services at an operator of for-profit colleges.
Another recusal involves Byron Brown, an EPA appointee who is married to a senior government affairs manager for the Hess Corporation, the oil and gas company.
Hess was fined and ordered to spend more than $45 million on pollution controls by the EPA during the Obama administration because of alleged Clean Air Act violations at its refinery in Port Reading, NJ Disclosure records show that Brown’s wife, Lesley Schaaff, lobbied the EPA last year on behalf of the company.
An EPA spokeswoman declined to say whether Brown or Schaaff owned Hess stock, though an agency ethics official said Brown had recused himself from evaluating regulations affecting the company.
The agency declined to say whether Brown would also recuse himself from issues affecting the American Petroleum Institute, where his wife’s company is a member. The association has lobbied to ease Obama-era natural gas rules, complaining in a recent letter to Brown’s team about an “unprecedented level of federal regulatory actions targeting our industry.”
Before being selected to lead the deregulation team at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Maren Kasper was a director at Roofstock, an online marketplace for investors in single-family rental properties. Financial disclosure records show Kasper owned a stake in the company worth up to $50,000.
Changes at the Department of Housing and Urban Development could increase investor interest in rental homes, affecting a company like Roofstock. The agency, for example, oversees the federal government’s Section 8 subsidies program for low-income renters.
Ethics officials allowed Kasper to keep her stake, but she pledged not to take actions that would affect it. (A spokesman for Department of Housing and Urban Development said Kasper’s tenure on the deregulation task force has since ended.)
One by one, scientists, educators and environmental activists approached the microphone and urged government officials not to weaken regulations intended to protect children from lead.
The forum, run by the EPA in a drab basement meeting room in Washington, was part of the agency’s push to identify regulations that were excessive and burdensome to businesses.
Few business people showed up. As public hearings on regulations have played out in recent weeks, many industry and corporate representatives have instead met with Trump administration officials behind closed doors.
Still, the EPA has asked for written comments and held about a dozen public meetings. The agency has received more than 4,67,000 comments, many of them critical of potential rollbacks, but also some from businesses large and small pleading for relief from regulatory costs or confusion.
After a quiet moment at the meeting to discuss lead regulations, the owner of a local painting company, Brian McCracken, moved to the microphone.
McCracken was frustrated by what he described as costly rules that forced him to test for lead-based paint in homes before he could begin painting. Each test kit costs about $2, and he may need six per room. If a family then declines to hire him, those costs come out of his pocket.
“I don’t think anyone is sitting here saying that lead-based dust does not hurt children,” he said. “That’s not what we are talking about. What the contractor needs is a better way to test.”
His voice quavered: “Why do I have to educate the general public about the hazards that generations before me created? It doesn’t make sense at all.”
Trump is not the first president to take on such frustrations.
President Bill Clinton declared the federal government was failing to regulate “without imposing unacceptable or unreasonable costs on society.” He assigned Vice President Al Gore to collect agencies’ suggestions for rules that should go. One rule dictated how to measure the consistency of grits.
President George W Bush’s regulatory overhaul focused more on how new regulations were created. The administration installed a political appointee inside each agency who generally had to sign off before any significant new rule could be initiated. At the EPA for a time, that official came from an industry-funded think tank.
President Barack Obama ordered regular updates from each agency about the effectiveness of rules already on the books.
“When you raise the profile, when it’s clearly an executive priority, it gets attention,” said Heather Krause, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, the main auditor of the federal government. According to the auditor’s analysis, the effect under Obama was mostly to clarify and streamline rules, not eliminate them.
Like Bush, Trump has empowered political appointees. Though some agencies have included career staff members on their review teams, an executive order from Trump creating the teams does not require it – nonpolitical employees are generally believed to be more wedded to existing rules. And like Obama, Trump has imposed regular reporting requirements.
But Trump, who spent his business career on the other side of government regulations, has put an emphasis on cutting old rules.
The same day he signed the executive order initiating the review, he addressed a large crowd of conservative activists at a Maryland convention center.
“We have begun a historic program to reduce the regulations that are crushing our economy – crushing,” Trump said. “We’re going to put the regulations industry out of work and out of business.”
Amit Narang, a regulatory expert at the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen, said Trump’s decision to create teams of political appointees – formally known as regulatory reform task forces – should make it easier for the White House to overcome bureaucratic resistance to his rollback plans.
“To the extent there’s a deep state effect in this administration,” Narang said, “the task force will be more effective in trying to get the agenda in place.”
This article first appeared on ProPublica.