A Democratic senator moved to conceal his apparent behind-the-scenes collaboration with an environmentalist pressure group on Wednesday after inquiries into the group’s role in crafting a report accusing political opponents of doing the bidding of special interests.
A report posted on Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D., R.I.) website on Monday accused Environmental Protection Agency critics of being in the thrall of the fossil fuel industry. According to metadata in the report, the document was created by an attorney with a green group currently defending EPA policies in federal court.
After the Washington Free Beacon sought comment from Whitehouse and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), one of the report’s co-authors, a new version of the document appeared online without digital fingerprints identifying the environmentalist attorney as its author.
The report, released on Monday by Democratic Sens. Whitehouse, Reid, Barbara Boxer (Calif.), and Ed Markey (Mass.), is written to resemble an amicus brief in ongoing litigation challenging Environmental Protection Agency regulations on carbon emissions from power plants. A federal court heard oral arguments in that case on Tuesday.
One of the parties in that litigation is the Sierra Club, a leading environmentalist group that enlisted the services of attorneys with the group EarthJustice to defend the EPA regulations in court.
David Baron, one of the EarthJustice attorneys working on behalf of the Sierra Club, appears to have assisted the Democratic senators in putting together their report on the regulations’ legal challengers. Metadata in the since-deleted version of the Senate Democrats’ report listed him as the document’s "author."
The new version of the report was created at 9:42 a.m. on Wednesday morning, according to the document’s metadata, and lists Whitehouse staffer Gifford Wong as its author.
Whitehouse, Reid, Boxer, and Markey did not respond to questions about EarthJustice’s role in creating the report. EarthJustice and the Sierra Club did not return requests for comment.
Though the initial document’s metadata indicated the file was created by Baron, it is not clear what role he and EarthJustice played in crafting the report’s contents or the extent to which the group’s input made it into the final product.
It was also not immediately clear whether EarthJustice was compensated in any way for its work on the report.
Ethics rules make exceptions to the gift rule for pro-bono legal services provided to senators filing legal briefs in their official capacity. The four senators who released this week’s report also signed on to an amicus brief supporting the disputed EPA regulations, but their report was not an official legal document.
The report "demonstrates that the state officials, trade associations, front groups, and industry-funded scientists participating in the [EPA regulation legal] challenge actually represent the interests of the fossil fuel industry," according to a news release on Whitehouse’s website.
EarthJustice has previously collaborated behind the scenes with leading environmental policymakers, according to internal communications released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests by the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, which opposes recent EPA regulations.
A 2014 E&E report identified EarthJustice as one of a number of organizations involved in "informal advisory teams of senior green-group representatives" that shaped major EPA regulations in internal discussions prior to their public release.
Chris Horner, an E&E attorney whom Whitehouse called out by name on the Senate floor on Tuesday, sees similar collusion at play in Senate Democrats’ report this week.
"Now we have documentary proof that its members have outsourced their policy-making and speech-writing to the green activists, signing their name to whatever is put in front of them, and using their office however these groups ask," Horner said in an email.