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Facing investigation from Dems, top EPA official resigns

The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)
The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C.

Exactly two years ago this week, lobbyist Bill Wehrum convened a meeting with his clients in the power-plant industry. On the agenda was a discussion on how best to go after the Obama administration's safeguards on polluters.

As Politico later discovered, just months after that strategy session, Donald Trump tapped Wehrum to help oversee pollution regulations at the EPA.

It was a classic example of draining the swamp in reverse: the lobbyist who helped strategize with polluters on how best to fight environmental safeguards was the same lobbyist whose job it was to help oversee environmental safeguards. Indeed, as Politico uncovered, the Republican administration tasked Wehrum with duties specifically related to "climate change, smog, and power plants' mercury pollution."

For his part, the utility lobbyist insisted he adhered to existing ethics rules, and when Republicans led both chambers of Congress, there was limited official scrutiny of Wehrum's work history. (He was confirmed in 2017 with near-unanimous GOP support.)

That was then; this is now.

A top Environment Protection Agency official who helped lead the Trump administration's rollback of Obama-era restrictions of carbon emissions is resigning amid a congressional probe into whether he improperly aided former industry clients.EPA Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum is expected to depart at the end of June. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced Wehrum's resignation on Wednesday.Ethics questions have dogged Wehrum since his 2017 nomination by President Donald Trump. He long represented the fossil fuels and chemical industries as a Washington lawyer. Narrowly confirmed by the Senate, Wehrum has helped lead EPA's rollbacks of clean air and carbon emissions regulations opposed by his former private-sector clients.

As the Associated Press reported, the Democratic-led House Energy and Commerce Committee started investigating Wehrum's work in April. Two months later, he decided to exit stage right.

In case this isn't painfully obvious, the story is a great example of how the oversight process is supposed to work. A media report shined a light on a controversial official; lawmakers with oversight responsibilities began to review the situation; and when the scrutiny intensified, the official quit.

There's been no word from the former House Republican majority as to why GOP leaders never bothered to look into this same controversy, but we don't need an official explanation to figure it out. In 2017 and 2018, the Trump administration simply didn't need to worry about checks and balances from the co-equal branch at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Wehrum's resignation may not be the highest-profile example of elections having consequences, but it's a good one all the same.