White House Ends Climate Change Gag Order: EPA Whistleblowers Now Free to Speak Out

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The Government Accountability Project (GAP), counsel for EPA and climate change whistleblowers Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, sent a letter to President Obama yesterday thanking the White House for causing the EPA to withdraw its censorship orders that effectively gagged the two enforcement attorneys. CSW director Rick Piltz said: “The culture in federal agencies of inappropriately restricting communication is dug in. It won’t be changed overnight and it won’t change all by itself. It’s going to take sustained, hands-on White House leadership and oversight.”

Press release on GAP website
 
GAP letter to President Obama
 
Nov. 25, 2009: EPA attempt to limit free speech by agency lawyers Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel violates the law
 
Nov. 9, 2009: PEER: EPA orders employees to remove YouTube video critical of cap-and-trade climate policy
 

Government Accountability Project
National Office
1612 K Street, NW, Suite #1100 • Washington, D.C. 20006

202.457.0034
www.whistleblower.org


July 28, 2010

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

White
House Ends Climate Change Gag Order
EPA
Whistleblowers Now Free to Speak Out

(Washington, D.C.) – The Government Accountability Project (GAP),
counsel for EPA and climate change whistleblowers Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel,
sent a letter to President Obama yesterday thanking the White House for
causing the EPA to withdraw its censorship orders that effectively gagged the
two enforcement attorneys.
 
Williams and Zabel had challenged “cap-and-trade” as a climate change solution
in their personal capacities by, among other actions, posting a video on
YouTube late last year. The EPA accused them of violating ethics rules simply
by listing and referencing their government positions and experience to
strengthen their credibility.
 
GAP was particularly impressed that White House Ethics Counsel Norm Eisen not
only intervened in this specific case, but successfully sought the Office of
Government Ethics (OGE) to issue new guidelines against using ethics rules to
gag whistleblowers’ noncommercial speech.
 
After 22 years of intransigence, the EPA also committed to implement and obey
the federal anti-gag statute – requiring agencies to include a qualifier to
nondisclosure policies. The qualifier makes clear that free speech rights
outlined by the Whistleblower Protection Act supersede any restrictions
elsewhere in the policy.
 
“This victory would not have happened without the White House,” stated GAP
Legal Director Tom Devine. “Most impressive, the administration delivered on
transparency commitments by ending censorship of those criticizing its own
policies. At GAP we’re not used to that kind of leadership.”
 
Rick Piltz, Director of the GAP-sponsored project Climate Science Watch,
emphasized the important role of the White House, stating: “The culture in
federal agencies of inappropriately restricting communication is dug in. It
won’t be changed overnight and it won’t change all by itself. It’s going to
take sustained, hands-on White House leadership and oversight.”
 
Background

Williams and Zabel have worked at the EPA for over 20 years. Zabel has two
decades’ worth of experience assisting EPA oversight of Los Angeles’
cap-and-trade program and California’s Clean Air Act offsets. Last November,
under threat of discipline, the EPA ordered Williams and Zabel to remove a
YouTube video they created to share their concerns on cap and trade. Although
their efforts were uncompensated, and they made clear they were speaking in
their own capacity, the agency accused them of ethics rules violations. Besides
threatening discipline, EPA imposed prior restraint by ordering them to submit
future public communications for advance review. The agency reasoned that the
pair violated conflict of interest rules by exploiting their titles and experience
for personal views.  
 
After Williams and Zabel sought Administration support, White House Ethics
Counsel Norm Eisen’s staff checked with OGE and began discussions with relevant
EPA officials. Those talks led to OGE issuing a government-wide ethics guideline
opinion on 5 CFR 2635.807(b) to instruct agencies that compliance only requires
employees to provide disclaimers that they are speaking for themselves and not
the government, and to include other biographical details when identifying
themselves. OGE explained the rules:
 
The purpose of section 807(b)(1) and (b)(2), in conjunction with section
702(b), is to ensure that public is not misled as to whether the views
expressed by an Executive Branch employee in uncompensated teaching, writing,
or speaking are those of the employee or those of the Government. A too literal
parsing of either 807(b)(1) or (b)(2) divorced from this broader purpose could
lead to unnecessarily restricting employee’s rights of free speech and
commentary. OGE believes that when it is clear from the actual language or
context of an employee’s teaching, writing, or speaking that the employee is
representing personal rather than agency views
, the purpose of the specific
provisions discussed above has been met. [emphasis added]

               EPA
then agreed that Williams and Zabel had not violated ethics rules and lifted
restrictions. Freed from censorship, last week they thanked the President and
EPA, while blowing the whistle to Congress on offsets as part of a
cap-and-trade program. Their disclosure can be found here.
 
Government Accountability Project

The Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower
protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing
concerns and developing legal reforms, GAP’s mission is to protect the public
interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977,
GAP is a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
 

Contact
: Tom Devine, GAP Legal
Director
Phone: 202.457.0034, ext. 124
Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Contact: Rick Piltz, Climate Science Watch Director
Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Contact: Dylan Blaylock, Communications Director
Phone: 202.457.0034, ext. 137, cell 202.236.3733
Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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