Posted with permission from ProPublica. This story was co-published with The New York Times.
At a private meeting in September, congressional aides asked Rebeckah Adcock, a top official at the Department of Agriculture, to reveal the identities of the people serving on the deregulation team she leads at the agency.
Teams like Adcock’s, created under an executive order by President Trump, had been taking heat from Democratic lawmakers over their secrecy. What little was publicly known suggested that some of the groups’ members had deep ties to the industries being regulated.
Adcock, a former pesticide industry executive, brushed off the request, according to House aides familiar with the exchange, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. Making the names public, they recalled her saying, would trigger a deluge of lobbyists.
In fact, interviews and visitor logs at the Agriculture Department showed that Adcock had already been meeting with lobbyists, including those from her former employer, the pesticide industry’s main trade group, CropLife America, and its members. CropLife pushes the agenda of pesticide makers in Washington, including easing rules related to safety standards and clean water.
Adcock, who left the trade group in April, maintained contact with her former industry allies despite a signed ethics agreement promising to avoid for one year issues involving CropLife as well as matters that she had lobbied about in the two years before joining the government.
In one meeting, Adcock discussed issues banned by the ethics agreement with an executive who had been her lobbying partner weeks earlier at CropLife, according to the accounts of participants and the visitor logs, obtained through a public records request by The New York Times and ProPublica.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the USDA who also spoke on behalf of Adcock, said she had not violated her ethics agreement by meeting with her former industry allies. He also denied that Adcock had discussed issues related to her previous lobbying at the meeting, or that she had suggested that her deregulation team would be swamped by lobbyists if names of its members were released.
“The career ethics officers at USDA agree that this is not a violation of the ethics agreement that Rebeckah Adcock signed,” said Murtaugh, citing a 2009 memo by the Office of Government Ethics.
Others dispute that interpretation of the memo; the ethics office declined to say whether the memo applied to the meeting, citing its policy not to discuss individual cases.
Adcock is scheduled to appear Tuesday before subcommittees of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is tracking Trump’s deregulation effort. In announcing the hearing, the committee, led by Republicans, applauded the deregulation teams for making an “unprecedented reduction in the federal regulatory footprint.”
Republican members of the committee declined to comment about Adcock’s activities. Representative Elijah E. Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, said that if Adcock had violated her ethics agreement, it contributed “to a troubling pattern of President Trump’s failure to ‘drain the swamp.”
In February, Trump ordered major federal agencies to set up the deregulation teams, to fulfill a campaign promise to cut red tape for businesses. Corporations and industry groups quickly hired lawyers, lobbyists and economists to help them influence the process with billions of dollars at stake. The regulations under review cover a range of subjects, including the cleanliness of drinking water and the safety of highways.
The Trump administration has declined to make public the names of many members of the teams. It has also generally not provided records related to the teams’ calendars and correspondence.
A joint investigation published in July by The Times and ProPublica found that the teams included former employees of industry-financed organizations that oppose environmental regulations; lawyers who have represented companies in cases against federal regulators; and staff members of so-called political dark-money groups. Some are reviewing rules that their previous employers sought to weaken or kill, and at least two may be positioned to profit personally if certain regulations are undone. In all, the two news organizations have identified 112 current and former team members, including 41 with potential conflicts.
At the meeting on Capitol Hill in September, Adcock lamented the scrutiny that her team was under, a House aide familiar with the exchange said. Adcock cited, in particular, public records requests for calendars and emails.
The Times and ProPublica asked for those records this year and have received only a few. Most other federal agencies have been similarly unresponsive. The visitor logs that have been obtained are often handwritten sign-in sheets. They appear to show only a fraction of meetings, and many are illegible. It is not known from the logs, for example, if Adcock or her team had met with environmental or science groups in addition to the industry representatives.
In response to questions from reporters about possible conflicts of interest, agency officials across the government have said the deregulation teams are abiding by strict ethical standards, including rules that bar them from working on issues directly affecting recent employers.
Records received through a Freedom of Information Act request show that Adcock entered such an agreement on April 26, pledging that she would “not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which I know CropLife America is a party or represents a party” for a year.