The second Edmond J. Safra Lab seminar met on September 19, 2012, and was led by Lab Fellow and investigative reporter, Sheila Kaplan. Sheila's most recent work centers on institutional corruption at the Environmental Protection Agency, and its effects on public heath and the environment. Citing specific examples in which a lack of public trust in the EPA has led to actual public harm (consumption of fish contaminated with PCBs, continued use of lands polluted by toxic mining refuse, etc.), Sheila began her presentation by discussing the critical role public trust plays in the effectiveness of an institution such as the EPA.
Central to Sheila's research on corruption at the EPA is the question of how campaign donations and congressional lobbying by Big Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing distort the mission of the agency. Over the past two years industry expenditures on congressional lobbying have totaled over $1 Billion, while industry campaign donations have topped $290 million. This largesse distorts the EPA's mission in two significant ways: it directly influences how members of Congress vote on the EPA's budget, and it influences how members of Congress vote on environmental laws for which the EPA is directly responsible with enforcing. Further, the mere presence of campaign contributions from industry to members of Congress tasked with oversight of the EPA weakens the public's trust of the institution. Sheila is focusing on members of Congress who actually sit on oversight committees, and is examining their campaign contributions. In doing this, we could gain insight into the influences that private interests have on lawmakers directly involved with issues of environmental policy, and EPA budgetary decisions.
After filing a Freedom of Information Act request in April of 2012, Sheila managed to collect more than 3,000 letters written to the EPA by members of Congress in the leadership and on committees with environmental oversight. Though her research is ongoing, the project's objective is to produce data that will show the extent to which lawmakers actively write the EPA to request reductions in fines, changes in code, or exemptions on behalf of private interests. Members of the seminar were eager to comment on this practice, and among the questions raised, many wanted to know if there is correlation between campaign contributions and the number of letters written by members of Congress on behalf of private interests. Specifically, do quid pro quo relationships exist between members of Congress and corporations seeking to indirectly lobby the EPA through Congress? These are but a couple of significant questions Sheila hopes to answer once her research is complete.
Finally, the last segment of Sheila's presentation considered the impact revolving-door practices have on the efficacy and trust of the EPA. Based on interviews Sheila has conducted with senior EPA staffers, it's been revealed that a general concern for industry officials has created a climate of mistrust within the agency. Seminar participants went on to discuss solutions to the revolving door issue, such as closing loopholes that permit former lobbyists, congressional staffers, and industry officials to join the agency.