The U.S. Capitol. (Credit: Toni Smith, USGS. Public domain

WASHINGTON — A congressional investigation is examining whether top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials, former employees of a legal and lobbying outfit with long Richmond ties, violated ethics rules by working on behalf of their former clients.

Lawmakers have asked for documents and an EPA inspector general investigation into whether the agency’s air chief Bill Wehrum and EPA senior counsel David Harlow improperly worked to roll back air pollution rules to benefit their former utility clients.

Wehrum and Harlow both previously worked in the Washington office of the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth (formerly known as Hunton & Williams), which was founded in Richmond and remains a legal heavyweight in the city.

Lawmakers are questioning whether Wehrum and Harlow, who represented an industry group called the Utility Air Regulatory Group when they were at Hunton, have continued to work on behalf of their former clients.

“I am troubled by the apparent conflicts of interest,” Rep. Donald McEachin (D-4th) told the Virginia Mercury in a statement. “The conflict in question put the health of the public at potential risk. I hope the EPA Inspector General investigates these concerns immediately — the American people deserve answers.” McEachin is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over EPA.

Democratic Virginia Sen. Mark Warner’s office is monitoring the situation and will be closely watching for an ethics investigation to determine if there’s been wrongdoing, according to his spokeswoman.

A spokesperson for Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he “has voted against several nominees for EPA and the Interior Department because of concerns about their objectivity given their close ties to industries with business before these agencies.”

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) joined two other committee members this year asking for documents pertaining to Wehrum and Harlow’s relationship to their former clients, stating that the EPA air office’s agenda “appears remarkably similar to the substantive agenda advanced by a group housed at your firm known as the Utility Air Regulatory Group.

“These allegations have raised substantial questions regarding whether Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Harlow are properly carrying out the (Clean Air Act) as directed by Congress, or instead changing agency policies and programs to benefit former clients,” the lawmakers said.

Democratic Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island have also pressed EPA’s inspector general to launch an ethics investigation into the two EPA officials over their industry ties. They warned of additional potential conflicts regarding the Air Permitting Forum, another industry coalition housed at Hunton Andrews Kurth comprised of several companies for which Wehrum and Harlow signed ethics recusals.

An EPA spokesman told the Hill earlier this month, “Bill Wehrum and David Harlow are not aware of billing any hours to Air Permitting Forum. The Air Permitting Forum is not a former client of either Mr. Wehrum or Mr. Harlow.”

And Wehrum has maintained that his client was UARG, not the utilities that made up its membership, Politico reported. At EPA, Wehrum recused himself from participating in “particular matters” involving UARG.

The lawmakers’ requests to the EPA inspector general are still under review, said Kentia Elbaum, a spokeswoman for the EPA IG’s office.

Hunton did not respond to a request for comment from the Mercury.

Last week, after the Utility Air Regulatory Group announced it was disbanding, Pallone and other lawmakers said they were “pleased to know there will be one fewer secretive industry group out there fighting to undo the progress we’ve made toward cleaner, healthier air.

“However, our committee’s investigation is not over. Important questions remain about whether EPA officials William Wehrum and David Harlow continue to advance their former coal industry clients’ agenda at EPA, and we intend to see those questions through.”

Among the utilities that comprised the Utility Air Regulatory Group is American Electric Power. Last year, in Virginia, Hunton went to bat for one of AEP’s operating units — Appalachian Power, which has one million customers in Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee — when the law firm said it would refuse to give donations to Virginia lawmakers who also refuse contributions from the electric utility, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Editor Robert Zullo contributed.