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Democrats fret conflicts of interest within deregulation task forces

Joe Mont | August 9, 2017

A Coalition of Democrats is demanding that Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Neomi Rao defend accusations that deregulatory task forces orders by President Trump and acting in secrecy and rife with conflicts of interest.

Deliberations, they say, are taking place behind closed doors and lacking public input.

The letter draws upon investigative reporting by the New York Times and ProPublica. “We write to express our alarm over the lack of transparency, accountability, and independence of the Regulatory Reform Task Forces.”

The letter specifically cites Executive Order 13777, which established agency task forces that will recommend agency rules ripe for repeal.

Among the President’s demands, issued in January, are that executive agencies may only issue a new regulation if they rescind at least two existing regulations in order to offset the costs of the new regulation.

The EO directed agencies, among other things: to identify at least two existing regulations to repeal for every new regulation proposed or issued; and to promulgate regulations during fiscal year 2017 that, together with repealed regulations, have combined incremental costs of $0 or less, regardless of the benefits. The total incremental cost limit for future fiscal years is to be identified later by the Director of OMB.

The letter demands those overseeing the task forces and rule-trimming efforts to “guard against conflicts of interest, especially those in which industry lobbyists seek to overturn environmental and health protections for financial gain.” It claims that the task forces “have operated outside of public view, manned by political appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts.”

“Some agencies have reputedly refused to release basic information about these deregulatory task forces, such as the names of the people names to serve on them,” the letter says, alleging that “nearly a third of identifiable employees serving on regulatory reform task forces have material conflicts of interest.

“Even worse,” the signatories allege, “several employees may stand to profit from their activity on a task force” and “personally profit if regulations are changed.”

A review of agency log-in sheets indicate that identifiable task force members include a lobbyist for a large oil company and a Department of Housing and Urban development review that includes a taskforce member who owns stock in a real estate company, “while simultaneously charged with reviewing rules that affect real estate investors.” Fifty-eight representatives of the oil and gas industry were also identified.

“Rather than drain the swamp, these conflicts threaten to influence the outcome of the review process against hardworking Americans and in favor of regulated industries and agency staff,” the letter adds.

The letter demands public information on every task force with names, titles, and associated organizations. Included in the request: all documentation and communications regarding the participation of non-governmental entities, including comments and advocacy materials.

The kicker: “please describe what, if any, measures agencies are taking to provide transparency for the regulatory process, and please explain why some agencies have refused to disclose the names of task force members in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.”

Among those signing the letter were Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.).