Under Trump, Inconvenient Data is Being Sidelined

The Trump administration has removed or tucked away a wide variety of information that until recently was provided to the public, limiting access, for instance, to disclosures about workplace violations, energy efficiency, and animal welfare abuses.

Some of the information relates to enforcement actions taken by federal agencies against companies and other employers. By lessening access, the administration is sheltering them from the kind of “naming and shaming” that federal officials previously used to influence company behavior, according to digital experts, activists and former Obama administration officials.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for instance, has dramatically scaled back on publicizing its fines against firms. And the Agriculture Department has taken off-line animal welfare enforcement records, including abuses in dog breeding operations and horse farms that alter the gait of racehorses through the controversial practice of “soring” their legs.

In other cases, the administration appears to be dimming the prior spotlight on the background and conduct of top officials. The administration no longer publishes online the ethics waivers granted to appointees who would otherwise be barred from joining the government because of recent lobbying activities. Nor is the White House releasing logs of its visitors, making it difficult for the public to keep track of who is stopping by to see the president’s inner circle.

The administration has also removed websites and other material supporting Obama-era policies that the White House no longer embraces. Gone, for instance, is a White House Web page that directed prospective donors to private groups that aid refugees fleeing Syria and other embattled nations.

Officials also removed websites run by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department that provided scientific information about climate change, eliminating access. for instance, to documents evaluating the danger that the desert ecology in the Southwest could face from future warming. (On Friday, protesting against the disappearance of the EPA website, the city of Chicago posted the site online as it had existed under the Obama administration.)

And within a week of President Trump’s inauguration, the White House retired the two-year-old Federal Supplier Greenhouse Gas Management Scorecard, which ranks firms with major federal contracts on their energy efficiency and policies to curb carbon output.

“The President has made a commitment that his Administration will absolutely follow the law and disclose any information it is required to disclose,” said White House spokeswoman Kelly Love in an email Sunday.

The White House takes its ethics and conflict of interest rules seriously,” Love added, “and requires all employees to work closely with ethics counsel to ensure compliance. Per the President’s Executive Order, violators will be held accountable by the Department of Justice.”

But Norman Eisen, who served as President Barack Obama’s special counsel for ethics and government reform, said the changes have undermined the public’s ability to hold the federal government accountable.

“The Trump administration seems determined to utilize a larger version of Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility to cover the entire administration,” said Eisen, now a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program.

Across the vast breadth of the government, agencies have traditionally provided the public with massive data sets, which can be of great value to companies, researchers and advocacy groups, among others. Three months ago, there were 195,245 public data sets available on www.data.gov, according to Nathan Cortez, the associate dean of research at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law, who studies the handling of public data. This week it stood at just under 156,000.

Data experts say the decrease, at least in part, may reflect the consolidation of data sets or the culling of outdated ones, rather than a strategic move to keep information from the public. But the reduction was clearly a conscious decision.

Cortez said the Obama administration increased the amount of government data offered to the public, although the information was at times incomplete or inaccurate and sometimes used as a “regulatory cudgel.” Under Trump, the government is taking transparency “in the opposite direction.”

In some cases, federal Web pages are being routinely maintained. In other cases, information that was once easily accessible to the public has moved to locations that are harder to find, access and interpret. Yet other data has entirely vanished.

The Education Department, for instance, continues to update weekly how many universities and colleges are being investigated for how they handle claims of sexual assault and harassment under the federal statute, Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination.

Under Obama, OSHA regularly sent out news releases to publicize the fines levied against companies, aiming to discourage others from engaging in similar behavior. President George W. Bush’s administration had a similar policy, issuing dozens of news releases each month.

Business groups have criticized the practice as scapegoating.

“The issue of shaming through news releases has been a real issue with my members,” said Randy Johnson, senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in an interview, adding, “It’s about trying to drive customers away, so that will put pressure on companies to settle” with the Labor Department rather than fight the alleged violations in court.

Since Trump took office, OSHA has issued more than 200 citations of $40,000 or more, according to the agency’s former deputy assistant secretary Jordan Barab, which was the threshold for issuing a news release under Obama.

But OSHA has issued only two stand-alone press statements on fines of at least $40,000, along with one on a judicial ruling. The releases include an incident where two men died in a collapsed trench in Boston where the agency found the company did not provide safety training or proper safeguards and when a worker in an auto insulation manufacturer in suburban Toledo had his right hand amputated by a machine.

A record of OSHA’s enforcement actions is still available online, but accessing it requires navigating the Labor Department’s extensive website to access raw data that largely lacks context and can be opaque.

Howard Mavity, a labor and employment lawyer at Fisher & Phillips who represents management, said in an interview that Obama officials’ practice of “regulation by shame . . . angered some employers, as well as me.” But putting a near-total stop to the news releases, he said, “was too far the other way.”

“Those news releases served a valuable role, to constantly alert and catch employers’ attention,” Mavity said.

Other documents are simply absent. Just days after taking office, Trump instituted a policy under which appointees are barred from working on any issue on which they have lobbied in the past two years, but the government can still waive this restriction. The administration has not made public which waivers, if any, it has granted.

The waivers detail contacts that could have precluded the person from serving and in some cases outline what contacts that person can have with former clients.

Michael Catanzaro represented clients including American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and Devon Energy as a partner at the CGCN Group before becoming special assistant to the president for domestic energy and environmental policy in February. Since joining the White House, Catanzaro has played a key role in drafting executive orders that could affect his former clients, including orders on climate and offshore drilling. The administration has not explained what steps, if any, he took to avoid a conflict of interest with those clients.

Catanzaro declined to comment.

Robert Glicksman, a George Washington University environmental law professor, was making the final edits on a law review article when he noticed that a government website he was relying on had vanished. Gone was the ecological assessment issued by the Bureau of Land Management for the Chihuahuan Desert, while another one was archived and a third was moved to an entirely different site.

“It’s one of the most important tools for BLM in understanding the current and likely impact of climate change on the public lands,” Glicksman said, adding that each document ran hundreds of pages and included technical and scientific information. “All that research is essentially off the boards, for now.”

The BLM did not respond to a request for comment.

In some cases, experts say, shelving disclosure requirements can hamper innovation in the private sector. Two years ago, the White House launched the greenhouse gas score card for federal contractors, listing whether they had disclosed their carbon output, have a goal to cut it and could face business risks from climate change. The site was archived within a week of Trump taking office.

Jason Pearson, executive director of the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, said that action removed a powerful incentive for private companies to improve their environmental practices.

“That transparency about positive action can be one of the most important motivators for the broader community to take action,” he said.

[Washington Post]

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