October 9, 2018 / 10:14 PM / 2 months ago

Acting EPA head liked 'racist' photo of Obamas: report

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler addresses staff at EPA headquarters in Washington, U.S., July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ting Shen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The acting head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency liked a controversial Facebook photo five years ago of then-President Barack Obama that a civil rights group called racist, the Huffington Post reported on Tuesday.

Andrew Wheeler, a longtime Washington insider, has kept a low profile compared to Scott Pruitt, who was forced to resign as head of the EPA in July under a cloud of ethics allegations including that he made staff search hotels for special skin lotion.

In January 2013, when Wheeler was a lobbyist for Murray Energy, a privately owned coal company, he liked an image on Facebook of former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle that depicted them staring at a banana, said the report, which listed other social media activity by Wheeler that critics said was inappropriate.

Heidi Beirich, the head of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, called the image of the Obamas “blatantly racist.” She said the people Wheeler interacted with “are just not folks a legitimate person should have anything to do with.”

Wheeler defended his social media use in a statement. “Over the years, I have been a prolific social media user and liked and inadvertently liked countless social media posts,” he said. “Specifically, I do not remember the post depicting President Obama and the First Lady. As for some of the other posts, I agreed with the content and was unaware of the sources.”

The report relied on posts uncovered by American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic political action committee.

In September, Wheeler on his personal Twitter account liked a tweet by a conservative documentary filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza that cast doubt over Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who had denied the allegations.

Later that month Wheeler liked a tweet from an editor at the website InfoWars that blamed Twitter’s temporary suspension of actor James Woods on discrimination against conservative views.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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