Michael Bastasch on May 21, 2017
An Obama administration appointee with deep ties to labor unions promoted a grassroots campaign to reverse the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate funding for the federal regulatory board he sits on.
The Daily Caller News Foundation obtained emails that show Chemical Safety Board (CSB) member Rick Engler worked with union activists to promote a grassroots campaign to keep the agency from losing its funding.
President Donald Trump’s “skinny” budget, released in March, called for eliminating the CSB, which began operating in 1998. Engler and labor union activists quickly worked to try and protect the board’s nearly $12 million budget.
Engler’s emails further raise concerns about the CSB’s impartiality. E&E News obtained emails in September, which showed Engler working with the Steelworkers union to push new regulations for refineries in California.
The correspondence raised “questions about whether the agency has transformed from a fact-finding entity into an advocacy organization, and it exposes tense internal politics that could threaten the agency’s mission and work,” E&E News reported.
Engler worked with the New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC), a group he founded in the late 1980s, to get activists to urge lawmakers to save CSB’s funding, according to documents TheDCNF reviewed.
He led the group for nearly 30 years. The agency was the first to bring labor and environmental activists together to push for regulations on industry. Engler was also elected vice president of the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
WEC is “an alliance of labor, community, and environmental organizations working together for safe, secure jobs, and a healthy, sustainable environment,” according to their website. Unions and environmentalists fund the council, including United Steelworkers.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration supplies the group with federal dollars. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH), a coalition of labor groups, also provides funding.
Former President Barack Obama appointed Engler to CSB in 2014. He was one of the many Obama nominees pushed through the Senate after former Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, changed the rules regarding the filibuster.
Working With Activists
In an April 27 email, Engler forwarded a WEC blast to the three other CSB members. The email contained a flier to “save the CSB.” Engler asked his colleagues to “please see the attached flyer developed and distributed by the NJ Work Environment Council.”
It’s unclear whether he sent the email using his official CSB account or a personal one, but the signature at the bottom identifies him as a “Member, U.S. Chemical Safety Board.”
Debra Coyle McFadden, WEC’s assistant director, sent an email containing the leaflet to an activist Google group, “protecting-workers,” on April 27. NCOSH maintains the Google group.
McFadden urged activists to “help distribute [the flier] broadly including at upcoming Workers’ Memorial Day events.” The agency pamphlet urges activists to call and write members of Congress to “save the CSB.”
Engler forwarded McFadden’s call to action to CSB members in the April email, claiming the group “developed and distributed” the flier. However, the flier’s digital signature lists the author as “rickengler.”
The leaflet urges supporters to “[t]ell Congress to fund the Chemical Safety Board.” It lists the contact information for top lawmakers on appropriations committees in the House and Senate.
“Call and write your Congressional Representative and the ones below and urge them to make our nation, communities and workplaces safer by voting to maintain $11.6 million in funding for CSB. Our health, lives and jobs are worth it!” the handout reads.
On May 1, NCOSH’s listerv sent out a NorthJersey.com article covering a bipartisan letter from New Jersey lawmakers urging House leadership to fund the board. The email was sent “on behalf of” Engler.
He is quoted in the article, hailing the bipartisan letter as “encouraging.”
Anti-Lobbying Act Concerns
When E&E News first published Engler’s emails, the paper suggested the CSB member’s actions could run afoul of the federal Anti-Lobbying Act.
His coordination with labor activists may be improper, but experts are doubtful he would ever be prosecuted by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
“The situation certainly is a violation of the spirit of the Anti-Lobbying Act but probably does not rise to the level to meet DOJ standards as an actual violation of the Act,” Craig Holman, an expert on the issue who works for the left-leaning watchdog group Public Citizen, told TheDCNF.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspector general’s office declined to investigate Engler’s emails. Experts told Bloomberg BNA in 2016 that Engler’s past coordination with unions didn’t meet DOJ’s standard for prosecution.
The Anti-Lobbying Act “prohibits substantial ‘grass roots’ lobbying campaigns of telegrams, letters, and other private forms of communication designed to encourage members of the public to pressure members of Congress to support Administration or Department legislative or appropriations proposals,” according to DOJ.
The agency interprets the act very narrowly, according to Holman, classifying “substantial” grassroots campaigning as spending $93,000.
“It is unlikely that that kind of money was spent on the grassroots lobbying activity in this particular instance,” Holman said. “This also explains why violations of the Anti-Lobbying Act are very rarely investigated and have never been prosecuted.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), on the other hand, takes a broader interpretation of the Anti-Lobbying Act.
For example, GAO found EPA violated the Anti-Lobbying Act in 2015 after the agency conducted a social media campaign with environmental activists to boost support for an upcoming regulation.
GAO ordered EPA to notify the White House it had violated the anti-lobbying law, but the agency refused to do so. DOJ declined to take any action on the issue.
“The agency does not condone grass roots lobbying and strives to ensure full compliance with all ethics laws and regulations,” CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen told TheDCNF when asked about Engler’s coordination with organized labor.
Neither the WEC’s McFadden nor Engler responded to TheDCNF’s request for comment.
A Controversial History
The passage of the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 authorized CSB’s creation, but the board was not set up until 1998 under President Bill Clinton.
CSB is an independent agency with no regulatory authority and, instead, investigates the root causes of industrial chemical disasters. The board investigated notable cases, like the BP oil spill in 2010 and the Texas fertilizer plant explosion in 2013.
The agency usually has five board members, but it only currently has four sitting members — all appointed by Obama.
In recent years, the board has become more controversial.
Former CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso resigned in 2015 amid accusations of mismanagement and mistreatment of whistleblowers.
House lawmakers called for Moure-Eraso’s resignation in 2015 after evidence surfaced that he and two other officials used private email accounts to conduct official business. The White House forced Moure-Eraso to resign.
His successor, Vanessa Allen Sutherland, “implemented initiatives to improve employee morale by creating an environment to encourage open communication,” the EPA’s inspector general found in 2016, though more work was needed to be done.
Engler’s email scandal, exposing his coordination with activists, only added to CSB’s controversial standing. Some say the board has become a tool of labor unions to scrutinize industry.
Concerns mounted after E&E News obtained emails that called into question Engler’s relationship with the United Steelworkers union. Experts said the email likely violated federal law.
In a February 2016 email, Engler told California regulators he was “working with the United Steelworkers and some allied environmental organizations” to “encourage further public support for the California refinery safety reforms, which is consistent with the CSB’s support for this initiative.”
E&E News also obtained emails showing how Engler worked with union officials to derail the nomination of a CSB rival.
In March 2015, Engler notified the Steelworkers union the Obama administration was about to name his CSB colleague Manny Ehrlich as chairman. He implored the Steelworker’s legislative department to “call White House as soon as possible in morning.”
Sources inside the agency said Engler made the power play to advance his own interests as well as those of union activists.
“The former chair [Moure-Eraso] was not on very good terms with the United Steelworkers (USW), and USW considers this board their baby,” a source to the situation told E&E news. “A lot of the jockeying with the White House to prevent Manny Ehrlich to be named the acting director was a function of USW wanting to keep control of the board because Manny Ehrlich’s not their guy. But Rick Engler is.”
“Whatever the Steelworkers want, he’s going to give it to them,” another source told E&E News.
“There’s nothing wrong with him being sensitive to their concerns and desires and even supporting the things that they would want,” the source said. “But I think he breaks through the barrier, actually, by working with the Steelworkers on various CSB policy issues. He literally is coordinating with them and meeting them privately to carry out the agenda.”
CSB Launches Its Own Lobbying Campaign
Sutherland said she and her staff would be “aggressively trying to save the board,” including talking to lawmakers about the agency’s important role, NorthJersey.com reported in late March, shortly after Trump released his budget.
CSB released a promotional video on March 17 — two days after Trump proposed eliminating the board.
The agency published a flier on the “business case for safety” in April. The flier claims if CSB’s “many safety lessons prevented at least one catastrophic incident, the money saved by preventing damage to the facility and surrounding community, avoiding legal settlements, and saving human lives far outweighs the agency’s $11 million annual budget.”
“The CSB’s continued collaboration with industry, regulators, standards setting bodies and other professional organizations proves that the CSB has a vital role in driving critical chemical safety change in the United States,” reads the flier.
The Trump administration is expected to send a full budget request to Congress in the coming days. It’s unclear if Congress will go along with Trump’s plan to defund the CSB.