In January, state Senator Doug Ericksen and former Senator Don Benton left Washington state for the nation’s capital with high hopes of playing major roles in revamping the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump years, but events have turned out quite differently. Ericksen is back at his Olympia desk, toiling through the special 2017 legislative session, while Benton has been dispatched to political Siberia as the director of the Selective Service System. Their once-rising stars appear to have fallen abruptly from the Trump firmament.
Things began auspiciously for Benton, who served as the leader of the 11-member EPA “beachhead” team. Its primary goal was to grab the agency’s reins while the president’s nominee for EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, ran the Senate gauntlet during his confirmation. The week after inauguration, Benton organized and chaired at least eight meetings of the team with top EPA staffers and among its members, according to internal agency emails that have surfaced. Ericksen, who attended almost all those meetings, was a core member of this beachhead team.
As senior adviser to the White House, Benton also served as its “eyes and ears at the agency.” Politico dubbed these advisers a kind of “shadow cabinet,” whose purpose is to maintain control and focus on White House priorities, despite presidential promises to grant political appointees like Pruitt substantial autonomy. As Politico noted, however, “they could also face tensions with the cabinet secretaries [or agency administrators like Pruitt] for micromanaging.”
Trump could hardly have found a more controversial adviser than Benton, who had served as his Washington state campaign director. They famously bonded over a Big Mac and a Filet-O-Fish during the real-estate mogul’s May visit to the Evergreen State. Seattle Times political columnist Danny Westneat called Benton’s selection “a textbook case of party-patronage cronyism.” Benton had, he observed, “an almost perfect track record of failure and interpersonal conflict, often resulting in legal or disciplinary action, at every public position he’s held.”
True to form, he reportedly managed to drive Pruitt “batty” shortly after his Senate confirmation came through on February 17. According to anonymous EPA insiders who spoke with the Washington Post, “Benton piped up so frequently during policy discussions that he had been dismissed from many of them.”
This beachhead/shadow-cabinet approach is curiously reminiscent of Soviet- era leaders who installed networks of loyal party apparatchiks within government agencies to keep watch over the officials within them and control what was going on. But in this case, it’s the apparatchik who got himself sent to Siberia!
Meanwhile, back at the EPA, Ericksen was having a difficult time adjusting to the merciless ways of the national press corps in his capacity as the beachhead team’s communication director. In an interview with National Public Radio on Tuesday, January 24, Ericksen stated that any agency scientists who wanted to publish their findings would need to have their work reviewed before it could be released. Big mistake. That statement ran afoul of official EPA policy, enacted during the Obama years, prohibiting agency leaders from intimidating scientists or otherwise politicizing the release of scientific results.
Ericksen was further quoted as saying, “We’re taking a look at everything on a case-by-case basis, including the web page and whether climate stuff will be taken down.” His statement came amid widespread public concern about a “media blackout,” suspension of EPA grants, and a broader White House “communications clampdown.”
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters—probably ingenuously—that the EPA clampdown wasn’t directed by the White House, which put our sometime senator out on a very shaky limb. That same Wednesday, Ericksen began backpedaling on climate change, saying the EPA was not planning to remove any web content on the subject. “We’re looking at scrubbing it up a bit, putting a little freshener on it, and getting it back up to the public.” He also softened his stance on EPA science.
But by January 30, the words “science” and “scientific” had curiously been removed, on Ericksen’s watch, from the mission statement of the EPA Office of Science and Technology Policy. Maybe that qualified as “scrubbing” in his mind. For he has shown little understanding of science as a state senator, inviting at least three climate-change deniers to lecture the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment and Telecommunications that he chairs.
Ericksen must have been relieved to get back to good old, familiar Olympia on February 1. But his return was delayed for several hours due to his scheduled flight being cancelled, triggering postponements and cancellations at the state capitol—and another round of press criticism, this time of his ability to serve two masters a continent apart and double dipping at government coffers. “It’s an incredible honor when the president asks you to be one of the first 200 people on his transition team,” said Ericksen, attempting to deflect mounting local criticism.
For his efforts those first two weeks, he earned gross pay of $6206.40 covering 80 hours of work (which probably included weekend time), corresponding to a huge annual salary of $161,900. Ericksen was thus being compensated at the very highest level an ordinary non-political federal employee can achieve — over three times his state senate salary rate of $46,839. In contrast, Ph.D. scientists normally take many years to attain that lofty level at federal agencies.
His official position description as “senior adviser” stated that he was to “advise on the implications of proposed, new, or revised policies, regulations and legislative proposals.” The purpose of his work was “to plan and conduct analyses of vital policies that are of agency-wide interest and scope.” Offhand, this job description sounds impressive—and worthy of the topmost salary.
But because of potential conflicts of interest with his position as a Washington state senator, Ericksen was excluded from working on policy matters by the EPA ethics office. It was a major reason he ended up as communications director—a position for which he was ill prepared and botched in the very first week on the job.
Since at least mid-February, the role of EPA spokesman has been handled by another beachheader, John Konkus, who is continuing with the agency. Ericksen seems to have gone radio quiet since then, suggesting he’s on the outs with Pruitt or the White House. Multiple reliable sources, in Washington, DC, and Olympia, have affirmed this interpretation. And on April 17, InsideEPA.com, an online news service, stated explicitly that Benton and Ericksen were not among Pruitt’s core staff members. Calls to the EPA Public Affairs Office trying to confirm Ericksen’s demotion or departure went unanswered.
It does not look like Ericksen will get the position he covets as administrator of EPA’s Region 10 office in Seattle, either. With a current budget of over $300 million and more than 500 employees, that office oversees agency activities in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. According to a long-established tradition, the administrator’s position rotates among these four states, and Alaska is next in line since the previous administrator, Dennis McLerran, who stepped down at the end of December, came from Washington. And the political stars have hardly aligned for Ericksen in the nation’s capital, depriving him of a potential source of support for this position.
Ericksen was however given an office and computer to use at the EPA Region 10 headquarters, according to two staffers there, but he has rarely if ever used them. Not what one would expect of a man who was hoping to step in as the next regional administrator.
“The world’s leading climate scientists have consistently found that climate change is the preeminent environmental challenge facing us today,” said McLerran in a telephone interview, when asked about the next regional administrator. “That makes Senator Ericksen’s past record as a climate skeptic very concerning.”
Ericksen’s likely role as administrator would have been to implement the drastic cutbacks being promoted by Pruitt and other presidential appointees—for example, to slash by 91 percent the $28 million currently being spent annually to help Puget Sound ecosystems recover from past environmental damage.
Thus few tears will be shed hereabouts that Benton and Ericksen will not be serving as the highly paid environmental “watchdogs” they had hoped to become. But given the way things are trending in the other Washington, we cannot hold out much hope that their replacements will be any better.