Republicans see IRS scandal parallel in EPA info requests

WASHINGTON Fri May 17, 2013 6:51pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers on Friday began an investigation into whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency greatly favored left-leaning environmentalists over conservative groups when granting fee waivers for requests to access information.

The lawmakers drew a comparison between the actions they say the EPA has taken with the Internal Revenue Service, which is embroiled in controversy over its targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny.

Republican Senators David Vitter of Louisiana, Charles Grassley of Iowa and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Representative Darrell Issa of California, raised the issue in a letter to the acting administrator of the EPA.

The four lawmakers serve as the top Republicans on the environment, judiciary and House oversight and government reform committees, respectively.

They asked why 92 percent of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) fee waivers were granted to "environmental allies," while just 8 percent were granted to conservative think tanks. The disparity came to light this week in a report by a conservative research group.

Agencies can waive fees for requested information if they determine the information contributes to the public understanding of governmental activities.

"This disparate treatment is unacceptable, especially in light of the recent controversy over abusive tactics at the Internal Revenue Service, which singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Bob Perciasepe, the EPA's acting administrator.

The Republicans accused the EPA of colluding with groups that share its political agenda and requested that the agency takes steps to ensure this does not happen again.

They requested that the EPA provide a list of all fee waiver decision letters on a monthly basis, make the agency's FOIA officer available for a transcribed interview and provide any materials used to train FOIA officers on how to process fee waiver requests.

Vitter met with Perciasepe earlier in the week and said he made progress with him on five key areas in which the EPA can improve its transparency, including how it handles FOIA requests.

Interest groups, researchers and journalists have filed FOIA requests with the EPA to understand how it goes about its process of writing regulations. Conservative groups have called this process opaque.

Perciasepe is heading the EPA while President Barack Obama's nominee to head the agency, Gina McCarthy, remains in the middle of a tough confirmation process.

McCarthy has had requests to answer more than 1,000 questions by Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Democrats have termed a record number.

Her nomination was sent to the full Senate on Thursday after a party line vote in committee. No date has been set for consideration. The first committee vote scheduled on McCarthy was abandoned when Republicans boycotted the meeting.

(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Ros Krasny and Bill Trott)

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