Washington watchdog gives What’s Upstream more time

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., uses an image from the What's Upstream website as a backdrop while giving a speech Sept. 14 on the House floor. Newhouse said the campaign, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, falsely portrayed farmers as careless polluters. He and other congressmen have asked for a briefing from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on how the agency will ensure it doesn't fund attacks on agriculture.

What’s Upstream has until Oct. 17 to answer allegations that the federally funded campaign for new limits on Washington agriculture should have registered as a grass-roots lobbying organization, a spokeswoman for the Washington Public Disclosure Commission said Tuesday.

The PDC originally gave lead organizer Larry Wasserman, the Swinomish Indian tribe’s environmental policy director, one week to respond to the complaint filed Sept. 19 by Save Family Farming, a group formed to counter claims by What’s Upstream.

The PDC grants extensions at the requests of respondents, the spokeswoman said.

Save Family Farming accused Wasserman, the Environmental Protection Agency and Seattle lobbying firm Strategies 360 of waging a campaign to influence Washington legislators.

Organizations that present information calculated to shape state legislation must register and report their sources of money and expenditures. The PDC can levy fines of up to $10,000.

“We’re eager to hear from the PDC, but Mr. Wasserman should have the time to respond appropriately,” Save Family Farming director Gerald Baron said.

Wasserman declined to comment.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission passed along to the Swinomish tribe some $655,000 in EPA grants between 2011 and 2015, ostensibly to educate the public about water-quality issues in north Puget Sound.

The tribe hired Strategies 360 to poll voters, test campaign messages and develop an advertising campaign. A website and billboards accused farmers of being unregulated polluters of water.

The website encouraged residents to ask legislators to mandate 100-foot buffers between farm fields and drainage ditches.

Six U.S. House members last week wrote EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, following up on comments she made five months ago distancing her agency from What’s Upstream. McCarthy told a Senate committee that the campaign’s tone “distressed” the EPA and that the agency had cut off funding.

The congressmen, including Washington Republican Dan Newhouse, asked for a briefing from McCarthy on what the EPA has done since then to ensure the agency isn’t funding attacks on agriculture.

A Newhouse spokesman said McCarthy has not yet responded.

An EPA spokesman said the agency is working to schedule a briefing.

“We will be working on our response and will share it once the congressmen have received it,” the spokesman said in an email.

Newhouse recently used the What’s Upstream website as a backdrop for a House floor speech condemning the campaign.

An image taken from the website pictured a spawned-out salmon, purportedly linking farmers to dead fish.

“I’d like to point your attention to this poster,” Newhouse said. “Through this broad and unfair ad campaign, all farmers were demonized as careless polluters.”

Newhouse excoriated What’s Upstream as the House considered legislation that would bar federal agencies from soliciting support for pending regulations. The House passed the Regulatory Integrity Act 240-171 and sent the legislation to the Senate.

The White House said that senior advisers would recommend President Barack Obama veto the bill if it ever reached him.

The legislation could lead to a less informed public, according to the White House’s statement of administration policy.

The bill, introduced by Michigan Republican Tim Walberg, was at least partly a response to the EPA’s promotion of the new Waters of the United States rule. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found the EPA’s use of social media was “covert propaganda” because people could not tell that pro-rule messages circulated on the internet originated with the agency.

EPA cut off funding to What’s Upstream last spring when some federal lawmakers alleged the campaign violated existing federal laws against using EPA money to lobby.

An audit by the EPA’s inspector general into how the money was spent is ongoing, an agency official said Tuesday.

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