An Austin-based state toxicologist whose views on air pollution are at odds with those of many scientists was recommended to lead a key Trump administration environmental science board by a Texas Republican donor.
Michael Honeycutt, director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality toxicology division, was named head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board in October.
Behind the scenes, EPA chief Scott Pruitt had apparently solicited the advice of GOP donors on suitable appointees to the board, which offers advice on broad scientific matters.
Critics charge the correspondence between Pruitt and donors reflects a cozy, even unseemly, relationship between the agency and the industries it is charged with regulating.
In one email, Dallas businessman Doug Deason says Pruitt had asked him and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation to make recommendations. Deason is a board member of the foundation, which counts oil and gas and other industry interests as its chief donors.
“Scott told me this past weekend that he was going to have (Pruitt Chief of Staff) Ryan Jackson call me to schedule a meeting in DC with our Environmental team at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and me, ASAP,” Deason wrote to Pruitt scheduler Sydney Hupp on May 3, 2017. “He asked that I help them add a few experts on a new proposed Science Advisory Board.”
The agency didn’t request candidates for the board from the public until June.
Deason is the president of Deason Capital Services, a family investment firm that has wide holdings, including in the oil and gas company Foreland Resources.
Since 2015, Deason has contributed more than $130,000 to Republican groups or candidates. His father, Darwin Deason, contributed more than $6.8 million during that period, including $450,000 to Trump Victory in 2016, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Deason told the American-Statesman that any question about whether it was inappropriate for Pruitt to solicit his suggestions for scientists for the panel is “silly BS.”
“Suffice it to say that Scott Pruitt is a friend and a committed conservationist. I have no way to benefit from any decisions the EPA makes,” he said, adding that he is “honored to have a chance to help this administration find people who will keep our air and water clean without bankrupting our country.”
The emails are part of a large cache of correspondence obtained by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information request. The Deason emails were first reported by Politico.
Other emails suggest Deason got Honeycutt’s name from Kathleen Hartnett White, former TCEQ chairwoman who runs the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s center on energy and the environment.
On May 19, 2017, White’s assistant wrote a note to Kevin Roberts, the foundation’s executive director: “Here is the list of names and associated bios that Kathleen has compiled. She especially recommends Dr. Michael Honeycutt of the TCEQ, so we have listed his bio first.”
Pruitt faces an array of investigations that focus on whether he crossed government ethics lines, including the rental of a Capitol Hill condo for $50 per night from the wife of a lobbyist who had business before the EPA.
Honeycutt has gained notoriety for what many scientists say are anomalous theories about air quality. He has suggested, for example, that making smog regulations more stringent will not cut asthma-related health problems and has suggested assessments of the dangers of mercury and arsenic are overblown.
Honeycutt’s findings have served as the underpinnings in Texas — and now, in Washington — for loosening environmental regulations.
Other scientists have accused him of cherry-picking scientific reports. Elena Craft, an air toxicologist at Environmental Defense, told the Statesman in 2014 that Honeycutt is “violating principles of public health,” because he does not protect the most vulnerable.
In August 2017, Deason wrote Jackson with a list of recommendations for the panel, forwarding White’s suggestions.
Honeycutt, who earns nearly $150,000 annually according to a Texas Tribune database, told the Statesman he did not know his name was put forward to the EPA by the Texas Public Policy Foundation or GOP donors.
He said his nomination for the board was submitted by TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw.
EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said Honeycutt “is a well-qualified and respected toxicologist” who was “nominated by multiple people.”
But Trump administration critics say the emails suggest the EPA has put campaign contributions and industry interests ahead of scientific merit.
The science board “should protect human health and the environment, but they are getting rid of real scientists and stacking it with ones their donors want in there,” Kyla Bennett, a former EPA employee who now works for the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the Statesman.
“It’s not at all a surprise, but it’s nevertheless still appalling,” she said. “The laws of this country are for sale. You have donors coming in and dictating who gets to be in power in these very important agencies.”
White did not return requests for comment Friday.
In February, the White House withdrew White, who is not a scientist, as its nominee to head the Council on Environmental Quality as some Senate Republicans raised questions about her expertise.
Testifying in 2017 before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, she said that while humans probably contribute to current warming, “the extent to which, I think, is very uncertain.”