EPA Inspector General Probing Whether Agency Staffer Colluded With Monsanto

Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller atomizers are displayed for sale at a garden shop near Paris.  (Photo: Charles Platiau / Reuters)
Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller atomizers are displayed for sale at a garden shop near Paris.  (Photo: Charles Platiau / Reuters)

The inspector general for the Environmental Protection Agency is initiating a probe into possible collusion between a former high-ranking EPA official and Monsanto, the maker of the herbicide glyphosate, according to a letter the IG sent to a lawmaker last Friday that HuffPost has obtained.

The inspector general’s move comes in response to a request from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) for an investigation into whether the EPA staffer colluded with the agricultural giant to bias research on glyphosate, a key component of the product Roundup. His request was based on media reports of documents released in the course of a lawsuit against Monsanto alleging glyphosate causes cancer, and that the company may have spun research and hired scientists to cover this up.

“As you are aware, there is considerable public interest regarding allegations of such collusion,” wrote Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. in his response to Lieu, dated May 31. “As a result, I have asked the EPA OIG Office of Investigations to conduct an inquiry into several agency review-related matters.”

The EPA and Lieu did not immediately return requests for comment for this story.

Documents released in the lawsuit reference internal Monsanto emails mentioning Jess Rowland, who was previously a manager in the EPA’s pesticide division, allegedly bragging to company officials in April 2015 that he could “kill” investigations into glyphosate. A Monsanto regulatory affairs manager sent an email to colleagues that said Rowland had told him, “If I can kill this I should get a medal.”

At the time of the email, Monsanto was apparently seeking Rowland’s help to shut down a review of glyphosate within the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Rowland retired from the EPA last year, and plaintiffs’ lawyers have been deposing him about allegations that Monsanto may have funneled money to him through third parties.

Rowland’s lawyer, William E. Lawler III, downplayed the IG’s letter in an email to HuffPost. “Jess Rowland is a well-respected former public servant who honorably served the EPA for 26 years and received commendations from the agency both during his service and on his retirement,” wrote Lawler. “He is a man of the highest integrity and ethics and he has done nothing wrong.”

Monsanto did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Inspectors general have wide-ranging authority to investigate matters of corruption at federal agencies, explains Michael Hubbard, a retired Special Agent in Charge for the EPA’s criminal investigations division.

With confirmation that the IG’s office is taking up a probe, it’s likely that IG investigators will begin interviewing Rowland’s former colleagues and bosses, pulling records and looking through his emails, Hubbard said. Another step could involve looping in investigators at the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, or obtaining subpoenas that would grant access to Rowland’s bank records.

“You want to start looking at money trails,” Hubbard said. “Has he benefited from Monsanto? Was the money changing hands with him or his significant other?”

The court cases against Monsanto have rippled across the Atlantic, sparking debate in Europe, where governments are considering whether to renew an application allowing glyphosate to stay on the market in the European Union, said Bart Staes, a Belgian member of parliament representing the Green Party.

“There has been a political and scientific debate for the last two years because the authorization to bring glyphosate to the market has expired and we need to make a decision by the end of the year,” said Staes.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization division focused on cancer, issued a conclusion in March 2015 that glyphosate is carcinogenic. But the European Food Safety Authority, an EU scientific body evaluating food-related concerns, issued its own finding in October 2015 that it was not. The two rely on different criteria to come to their decision, Staes said: While IARC relies on published studies, EFSA is also able to assess data that is proprietary to companies.

Last week, Christopher Portier, the former associate director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, sent a letter to the president of the European Commission stating that he had re-examined some raw data of animal studies EFSA used to conclude that glyphosate did not cause cancer, and found eight instances of tumors that EFSA had not included in its assessment. Portier recently retired after 40 years of employment in the United States government and is now a part-time adviser to the Environmental Defense Fund and a consultant to a law firm involved in glyphosate litigation.

Members of the EU Parliament had asked him to review a portion of the proprietary data EFSA released to them, though he is not allowed to make that data more widely available, he said. “The lawyers back in the States haven’t seen this,” Portier told HuffPost.

Portier, who added that he wasn’t compensated for this work, said he is going to write to the EPA administrator himself because “they also missed all the tumors.”

“They have had this information in their files for decades, but they never analyzed the data,” he told HuffPost.

The head of IARC recently told Politico that his organization has faced an onslaught of criticism regarding its conclusions on glyphosate similar to backlash IARC faced from tobacco companies in the early 2000s when it concluded that secondhand smoke causes cancer.

Staes said the glyphosate lawsuit in the U.S. has spurred further concern that Monsanto has colluded with purportedly independent scientists: “We are now getting some written proof of collusion between scientists and Monsanto, which has these scientists like puppets on a string.”

Following Portier’s letter, Staes and three other members of parliament filed a lawsuit demanding that EFSA make all the data on glyphosate public.

“More and more, the debate is about corporations controlling the science, and then this science is used by the regulators,” said Staes. “This really goes beyond glyphosate.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.