Under pressure, Wehrum details recusal obligations

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ten months after taking over as EPA air chief, Bill Wehrum yesterday signed off on a recusal letter in which he formally pledged to avoid participation in “any particular matter” involving several dozen companies and trade groups that he previously represented as an attorney in private practice.

In accordance with a Trump administration executive order, the recusal period will run though Nov. 12, 2019, or two years after Wehrum rejoined EPA as assistant administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation.

Among the former clients covered by the recusal requirements are Duke Energy Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and the conglomerate Koch Industries Inc.

Wehrum also indicated he would steer clear of involvement in more than 30 legal cases involving the American Petroleum Institute, Brick Industry Association and Utility Air Regulatory Group, among other past clients.

Wehrum filed the recusal letter as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) was preparing an amendment that would have forced him to provide it.

At a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee markup this morning, Whitehouse called Wehrum “a walking conflict of interest” and said he was supposed to have furnished the list of his recusal obligations by this past February, or within three months after taking over the air office.

After making his point, Whitehouse then withdrew the proposed amendment. In a sign that his effort enjoyed bipartisan support, however, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) called it “good oversight.”

Wehrum did not reply to an email this morning asking whether pressure from Whitehouse led him to turn in the letter. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from E&E News seeking any recusal list or other ethics-related records for Wehrum, EPA said earlier this month that it had found “no responsive documents.”

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Wehrum said he was “scrupulously” following his ethics obligations but was not filing a recusal letter because of uncertainty over the definition of what represented a “particular matter involving specific parties.”

“I have gotten three different interpretations, and what I don’t want to do is sign a recusal letter and then have the rules change again,” he told the newspaper in a story published last month.

During George W. Bush’s administration, Wehrum worked in the air office from 2001 to 2007, first as counsel and then as acting chief.

He later built a lucrative practice handling Clean Air Act work for industry clients as a partner at what is now the firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP.

Before returning to EPA last year, Wehrum said he would recuse himself from specific matters involving former clients (E&E News PM, Sept. 15, 2017). In that filing, however, Wehrum did not list the specific clients that would be covered by that pledge.

Since then, he has drawn fire from congressional Democrats and environmental groups for undertaking a variety of steps at the agency to ease or roll back regulations covering power plants, car manufacturers and other broad industrial sectors.

Whitehouse had publicly requested Wehrum’s recusal letter in April (E&E News PM, April 25).

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.