Newspaper article International New York Times

E.P.A. Broke Law with Social Media Push for Water Rule, Auditor Finds

Newspaper article International New York Times

E.P.A. Broke Law with Social Media Push for Water Rule, Auditor Finds

Article excerpt

The agency essentially became a lobbyist for its clean-water cause by directing people to advocacy organizations, a watchdog agency said.

The Environmental Protection Agency engaged in "covert propaganda" and violated federal law when it blitzed social media to urge the public to back an Obama administration rule intended to better protect the nation's streams and surface waters, congressional auditors have concluded.

The ruling, by the Government Accountability Office, which opened its investigation after a report on the agency's practices in The New York Times, drew a bright line for federal agencies experimenting with social media about the perils of going too far to push a cause. Federal laws prohibit agencies from engaging in lobbying and propaganda.

"I can guarantee you that general counsels across the federal government are reading this report," said Michael Eric Hertz, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York who has written on social media and the government.

An E.P.A. official on Tuesday disputed the finding. "We use social media tools just like all organizations to stay connected and inform people across the country about our activities," Liz Purchia, an agency spokeswoman, said in a statement. "At no point did the E.P.A. encourage the public to contact Congress or any state legislature."

But the legal opinion emerged just as Republican leaders moved to block the so-called Waters of the United States clean-water rule through an amendment to the enormous spending bill expected to pass in Congress this week. While the G.A.O.'s findings are unlikely to lead to civil or criminal penalties, they do offer Republicans a cudgel for this week's showdown.

"G.A.O.'s finding confirms what I have long suspected, that E.P.A. will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda," Senator James M. Inhofe, who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and seeks to block the rule, said in a statement on Monday. He decried "E.P.A.'s illegal attempts to manufacture public support for its Waters of the United States rule and sway congressional opinion."

The E.P.A. rolled out a social media campaign on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and even on more innovative tools such as Thunderclap, to counter opposition to its water rule, which effectively restricts how land near certain surface waters can be used. The agency said the rule would prevent pollution in drinking water sources. Farmers, business groups and Republicans have called the rule a flagrant case of government overreach.

The publicity campaign was part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to counter critics of its policies through social media tools, communicating directly with Americans and bypassing traditional news organizations. …

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