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WASHINGTON (AP) — Top-ranking Congressional Democrats are calling on a federal watchdog to review whether Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt broke the law by making a video for a private group opposing an Obama-era clean-water rule.
Pruitt flew to Colorado for an August event organized by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, an industry trade association representing cattle producers. While at the ranch, Pruitt recorded a video urging the group's members to file comments supporting the repeal of EPA's Waters of the United States rule.
The 2015 rule seeks to expand the agency's jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act to include smaller streams and wetlands.
In a letter sent last week, the top Democrats on four committees with oversight of EPA asked the head of the Government Accountability Office to issue a formal legal ruling on whether Pruitt's participation in the video violated federal rules. They cited longstanding prohibitions against federal officials using taxpayer funds "for publicity or propaganda purposes, and for the preparation, distribution or use of any kit, pamphlet, booklet, publication, radio, television, or film presentation designed to support or defeat legislation pending before the Congress."
EPA did not respond to messages seeking comment about the letter or provide the total cost to taxpayers for his trip.
The Associated Press and other media outlets have previously reported about Pruitt's frequent westward travel, which often occurs on Thursdays and Fridays to allow the EPA chief to spend weekends at his home in Oklahoma. Records show Pruitt typically travels with at least two aides and members of his full-time security detail.
EPA's inspector general is currently reviewing the "frequency, cost, and extent" of Pruitt's trips to determine whether they adhere to federal travel polices.
The trip to Colorado was billed by EPA as part of Pruitt's "State Action Tour" to rally opposition to Obama-era environmental regulations. In the video, Pruitt criticizes the WOTUS rule as an example of federal overreach, redefining the Clean Water Act to cover "a puddle, a dry creek bed and ephemeral drainage ditches across this country."
The video was posted on YouTube and on the Beef Association's website, along with language urging the ranchers to "Urge Congress to Stop EPA's Unlawful Expansion" and "Let your Congressional representatives know that they should not allow EPA ... to trample on your Constitutional rights."
"EPA effectively constructed a message, delivered by the Administrator, and intended for the NCBA to distribute that message through an online video," the Democrats said. "Additionally, the viewing audience may be unable to discern the source of that message, because in the video, the EPA Administrator's image, name, and title appear alongside the name and logo of the NCBA."
The letter was signed by Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure; Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment; Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Energy and Commerce; and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
GAO spokesman Chuck Young confirmed the letter had been received, but said it would likely be weeks before any decision is made about whether to issue the legal ruling sought by the Democrats.
Colin Woodall, the senior vice president for government affairs at the Beef Association, said EPA had asked to group to organize an event where Pruitt could appear with stakeholders in the ranching community."
"In advance of the visit, NCBA requested an interview with Administrator Pruitt and worked with the EPA Office of Public Affairs to arrange the interview at the event," Woodall said. "In the unscripted interview, Administrator Pruitt explains his State Action Tour and encourages stakeholders to submit comments on the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. NCBA filmed, edited, and published the video without any direction from EPA."