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EPA orders employees to avoid talking to the press

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering    

EPA orders employees to avoid talking to the press

  • Reporters seeking information from the Environmental Protection Agency in 12 states will have a tougher time than usual under EPA directives not to talk to the media.

Sep. 24, 2004 — In an effort to “prevent EPA management from being surprised by news coverage,” the Midwestern regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency has issued this edict to employees: do not talk to reporters. And EPA workers in five Western states were told late last month to decline comment on press inquries that “seem partisan” between now and Election Day.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility obtained a copy of a memo issued earlier this month ordering EPA employees in the Midwest not to initiate contact with reporters. The memo, written by Bharat Marthur, head EPA official for the region which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, also mandates that EPA scientists and specialists who are designated as public spokesmen on particular matters go through the Office of Public Affairs.

The ban on talking to the media appears to violate congressional bans on federal agencies forcing its employees into a “non-disclosure policy, form, or agreement,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said on the group’s Web site. The memo shows “the EPA political leadership’s profound fear of the expertise of its own professional staff,” he said.

“This non-disclosure policy is so broad that EPA employees cannot reveal where the bathrooms are located or what the time of day is to a reporter . . . ” Ruch said. “Significantly, under this policy, EPA staff can still talk to environmental ground or members of the public — just not reporters.”

The branch of the EPA covering the five mountains and Plains state and 27 tribal nations established its own non-disclosure policy. In an Aug. 31 e-mail, EPA officials advise employees dealing with calls from reporters that “since it is 2 months before election day . . . here is how to handle inquiries for information that seem partisan: The response is ‘no comment.'”

The policy covers EPA workers in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and 27 tribal nations. The policy arose after the campaigns of candidates seeking to replace retiring Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell began battling over the environmental records of the two candidates. The election’s outcome will help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

An EPA official defended the pre-Election Day policy, telling that the restrictions are extensions of the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from taking actions which could alter the outcome of an election.


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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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