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EPA Employee Used Trump Budget as Retirement Excuse, But Emails Say Otherwise

Responsive documents to a FOIA request for Elizabeth Southerland, who made more than $200,000 per year, reveal she did not retire because of Trump.

Scott Pruitt EPA Administrator

A senior employee at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a big stink about leaving the agency earlier this month over President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget and the direction of the new administration, but new documents show she might not have been telling the whole story.

Elizabeth Southerland penned a memo to her EPA colleagues in which she lamented potential budget cuts to the agency outlined in Trump’s FY18 budget, released in May. Presidential budgets are rarely, if ever, approved let alone enacted. Still, Southerland wrote in her retirement memo:

[T]he President’s FY18 budget proposes cuts to state and tribal funding as draconian as the cuts to EPA, while at the same time reassigning a number of EPA responsibilities to the states and tribes.

Later in the memo, she continued her war on the Trump administration, declaring: “It may take a few years and even an environmental disaster, but I am confident that Congress and the courts will eventually restore all the environmental protections repealed by this administration because the majority of the American people recognize that this protection of public health and safety is right and it is just.”

That memo went public August 1, but documents obtained by NTK Network through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal Southerland, who made headlines for her parting shots at the Trump administration, may have left out key details about her departure.

In an email to a colleague dated July 26, 2017, Southerland explained her retirement decision was announced internally in June, and gives the reason why:

Maybe you did not receive my email about my retirement, but I sent it to you in June as soon as I found out I needed to retire to help out with family medical care.

It’s of course understandable that Southerland may not have wanted to share private family medical information with her colleagues, or even explain in detail her reasons for departure, but it’s quite another to grab headlines on largely false pretenses.

“EPA won’t be able to do the ‘right thing’ under Trump, says latest protesting official,” the Washington Post’s headline read on August 1. That story did include one sentence on “family concerns” factoring into Southerland’s decision, while dedicating another 800 words to her attacks on the Trump administration.

The email also makes clear that Southerland did not find the EPA’s new direction so objectionable that she quit immediately. Rather, she stayed on another two months or so.

An EPA spokesman did not return a request for comment.

Federal records show Southerland made $249,000 in 2016, her final full year at the EPA. That is about six times the average American’s annual salary.