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Ethics Investigations Opened into Actions of EPA Head Wheeler, Top DOI Officials

Politics
Ethics Investigations Opened into Actions of EPA Head Wheeler, Top DOI Officials
Mark Wilson / Getty Images News

Ethics investigations have been opened into the conduct of senior Trump appointees at the nation's top environmental agencies.

The two investigations focus on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler and six high-ranking officials in the Department of Interior (DOI), The Hill reported Tuesday. Both of them involve the officials' former clients or employers.

"This is demonstrative of the failures at the very top of this administration to set an ethical tone," Campaign Legal Center Ethics Counsel Delaney Marsco told The Washington Post of the DOI investigation. "When people come to work for government, they're supposed to work on behalf of the public. It's a betrayal of the public trust when senior political appointees seem to give privileged access to their former employers or former clients."


Here's a run-down of the two investigations.

Andrew Wheeler

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating Wheeler for failing to disclose that he lobbied for Darling Ingredients within two years of assuming his post at the EPA, CNN reported Wednesday.

The Ethics in Government Act mandates that all officials must disclose the sources of any money over $5,000 earned in the two years before their appointment, but Wheeler failed to disclose his work on behalf of the chemical company in 2015 and 2016 while working for Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting. The committee cited Faegre's quarterly disclosure forms as proof that Wheeler had not listed the earnings.

"These documents indicate that you may have improperly omitted Darling from your financial disclosure, and they raise concerns that you may have failed to identify other clients who paid for your service as a lobbyist during the period covered by your disclosure report," House Oversight chairman Elijah Cummings wrote in a letter to Wheeler informing him of the investigation.

Darling supplies ingredients for fertilizers, fuel and pet and livestock food, among other products, according to The Hill.

Wheeler also met with Darling in June 2018, while he was serving as deputy administrator at the EPA, according to CNN, but an agency lawyer said this did not violate ethics laws. The EPA did not comment on the investigation to the media and instead said it would respond through the "proper channels," according to CNN.

The DOI Six

Six officials at the DOI are being investigated by the department's Office of Inspector General over meetings with former employers or clients on department-related business, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order early in his term saying all appointees must recuse themselves from matters involving former clients for two years. But the Campaign Legal Center sent a letter to the DOI watchdog in February detailing how six officials had violated that pledge. The Office of Inspector General wrote back to the center April 18 to say an investigation was in process.

"The department takes ethics issues seriously," Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort told The Washington Post in an email.

The letter was sent three days after the Office of Inspector General announced it was opening an investigation into newly-confirmed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt after receiving various complaints about his potential conflicts of interest, The Washington Post reported April 15. Bernhardt replaced Ryan Zinke, who resigned as Interior Secretary after an ethics investigation into his conduct was passed on to the Justice Department.

Federal law requires officials to disclose any client over the past two years that paid them more than $5,000 ...Andrew Wheeler apparently failed to disclose a former lobbying client that paid him more than $5,000https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/440299-epa-administrator-failed-to-disclose-former-lobbying-client …

Here is a brief outline of officials implicated in the most recent investigation, as summarized in The Huffington Post.

  1. White House liaison Lori Mashburn, who attended two private events hosted by her former employer and right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation
  2. Senior Deputy Director for Intergovernmental and External Affairs. Ben Cassidy, who participated in agency meetings on issues he had lobbied the department about on behalf of the National Rifle Association, including trophy hunting and the designation of national monuments
  3. Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs Doug Domenech, who met with his former employers, a Koch-link think tank called the Texas Public Policy Foundation, about issues over which the foundation was suing DOI
  4. Former Energy Counselor to Zinke Vincent DeVito, who attended a meeting with a former energy client
  5. Deputy Director of Interior's Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs Timothy Williams, who participated in a video call with his former employer, who is vice president of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity
  6. Director of Interior's External Affairs Office Todd Wynn, who had a phone call with a committee member of the oil-funded Council of State Governments, of which he had also been a committee member before taking the DOI job

"An agency's ethical culture depends on ethical leadership. Former Secretary Ryan Zinke and Secretary David Bernhardt, now under investigation himself for ethics violations, have failed to demonstrate adequate ethical behavior at the top of Interior," Matsco said in a statement reported by The Huffington Post. "We hope this investigation will answer whether these officials are working on behalf of the American people or on behalf of the interests that used to pay their salary."


A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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