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EPA chief meets with GOP candidates in tough reelection bids to discuss environmental matters

Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler traveled to California on Thursday to appear at a roundtable event with Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), who is facing a tough reelection bid in his 10th congressional district, located in California’s Central Valley.

The event was described as a way for Wheeler to learn about an upcoming rulemaking at the California State Water Resources Control Board that aims to increase water flows from rivers into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The EPA is in charge of approving the plan under the Clean Water Act.

The visit, however, also marks the fifth time Wheeler has traveled to a Republican House district since August, including ones with competitive races.

In the upcoming November election, Denham is facing Josh Harder (D), who is leading in some polls. The 10th district covers Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin County, California. A Berkeley IGS Poll, released October 4, showed that Harder — a 32-year-old who recently worked at tech investment firm Bessemer Venture Partners — had the support of 50 percent of voters surveyed, while Denham had 45 percent support.

In recent months, Wheeler has visited several other House Republican districts, including ones in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Iowa. Political observers believe Wheeler’s visits raise questions as to whether this kind of activity blurs the lines of what is acceptable and legal.

But the reasoning behind Wheeler’s visits to several background congressional districts remains uncertain. In states like California, his visit could serve as a way to show that the candidate cares about the environment.

They could also have the opposite effect. Appearing with Wheeler — a Trump cabinet official — could send a signal to Trump loyalists in a district that the candidate is close to President Trump.

Wheeler appeared in Kentucky in late August to tout the Trump administration’s replacement for the Clean Power Plan, with Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), who is seeking re-election against Democrat Amy McGrath in the state’s 6th congressional district. The two are running neck-and-neck, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll.

Also in August, Wheeler traveled to Michigan’s 7th District, where he made an appearance with Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) to discuss Great Lakes restoration. Walberg is facing re-election against Democrat Gretchen Driskell. Polls show the election leaning in favor of the Republican.

And in mid-August Wheeler participated in roundtable discussion in Iowa about the renewable fuel standard and the Clean Water Rule with Rep. David Young (R-IA). Democrat Cindy Axne is trying to unseat Young to represent the 3rd district of Iowa in a race that is considered highly competitive.

For the California trip, Wheeler and Denham said the visit was timed in advance of a possible vote in November on the water plan by the State Water Resources Control Board. The pair wanted to make sure people knew that Wheeler did not travel to California to support the Republican candidate in the run-up to the midterms, E&E News reported Friday.

If Wheeler had gone to California or any of these other congressional districts to support a politician’s campaign, it could result in a violation of the Hatch Act. The federal law prohibits civilian employees in the executive branch from using their authority or influence to affect an election’s results.

At the event with Denham in California this week, E&E News reported that Wheeler said: “This isn’t a campaign thing. This is an issue that’s going to hit the [California water board] on November 7, and I can’t wait till Nov. 8 to get up to speed.”

In an email to ThinkProgress on Friday, Sierra Club spokesperson Adam Beitman said, “Let’s be clear: Andrew Wheeler is a coal lobbyist doing the dirty work for corporate polluters from inside the EPA.”

“Anyone who stands with Wheeler stands for gutting clean air and clean water safeguards and turning back the clock on climate action,” Beitman said. “Wheeler’s toxic policies should be toxic on the campaign trail.”

The EPA had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.

Earlier this year, prior to Scott Pruitt resigning as EPA administrator, the American Federal of Government Employees Council 238, a union that represents EPA employees, filed a complaint about a tweet that came from the EPA’s official Twitter account.

The tweet was about the Senate confirmation of Wheeler as EPA deputy administrator, and the union argued that it violated the Hatch Act — the tweet criticized Democrats for opposing Wheeler’s nomination.

The Office of Special Counsel, however, said it had found no such violation. The office stated the tweet didn’t amount to a Hatch Act violation because “it was not aimed at the electoral success or defeat of a political party or candidate for partisan political office.”

Other members of the Trump administration have faced numerous allegations of violating the Hatch Act over the past year. In August, the Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed complaints with the Office of Special Counsel against 10 members of the Trump administration for posting tweets that support President Trump as a candidate for the Republican Party in 2020.

CREW argued that the tweets made by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and eight others were a direct violation of the Hatch Act.

The Office of Special Counsel’s guidance on applying the Hatch Act prohibitions to social media, including Twitter, specifically advises that an employee may not “use a Facebook or Twitter account in his official capacity to engage in political activity” and requires that “any social media account created in a federal employee’s official capacity should be limited to official business and remain politically neutral.”

In March, following multiple Hatch Act violations by a Trump Administration official, the office offered additional clarification explicitly prohibiting an employee from using the slogan “Make America Great Again,” hashtags such as #MAGA, or any other materials from Trump’s 2016 or 2020 campaigns.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been accused of violating the Hatch Act as well. In June, Zinke deleted a photo of a sock he was wearing with President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan on it after realizing he may have violated the Hatch Act.

Later that month, the Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group, called on the Office of Special Counsel to investigate whether Zinke violated the Hatch Act by wearing the socks.

In a separate case, the Office of Special Counsel found no evidence that Zinke violated the Hatch Act by giving “a political speech or otherwise engaged in political activity” during an event with the Las Vegas Golden Knights in June 2017.

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