WASHINGTON — A voicemail that criticizes California's attempt to impose new limits on vehicle emissions touched off a congressional investigation Tuesday into whether a federal official improperly worked to thwart the state's efforts.
The message, left by an aide to the secretary of Transportation on a congressional staffer's phone message system, found its way to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), an investigatory pit bull who has championed clean-air legislation.
Waxman, who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, promptly launched a probe, calling it "highly inappropriate" and possibly illegal for an agency official to be lobbying members of Congress.
The voicemail is the latest twist in the state's fight to secure a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency to mandate stronger vehicle emissions requirements by 2009. Under the Clean Air Act, California is allowed to set stricter anti-pollution rules, but only if the EPA approves.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, Waxman wrote: "It is especially problematic on an issue that is pending for a decision before the administration and that is supposed to be decided based on an independent assessment of the merits."
The Department of Transportation's acting general counsel responded that the action in "no way violated anti-lobbying restrictions." The department counsel said that agency officials only "communicated the potential implications" of any federal government decision to grant California permission to implement its emissions law.
Federal law bars agencies from trying to influence how members of Congress vote on legislation.
According to Waxman, Heideh Shahmoradi -- the Transportation secretary's special assistant for governmental affairs -- left a message warning that if California receives the waiver, "it could lead to a patchwork of regulations on vehicle emissions which could have significant impacts on the light truck and car industry."
Shahmoradi then asked whether the congressional aide's boss would be interested in commenting on California's request or "reaching out to your governor's office for them to submit comments to the docket, since this would greatly impact the auto facilities within your district." Waxman's staff declined to identify the congressional office that received the call.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's spokesman, Adam Mendelsohn, said: "If this is true, it's very problematic. This waiver is critical to protect California's environment and should not be politicized."
Waxman asked Peters to provide his committee with all documents relating to communications between her department and congressional offices regarding California's request and any related communications with other federal entities, including the White House. He also asked her to make Shahmoradi available for an interview by the committee staff.
Rosalind A. Knapp, the Department of Transportation's acting general counsel, said that the restrictions prohibit lobbying intended to encourage third parties, members of special interest groups or the general public to contact members of Congress in support of or opposition to a matter.
"These restrictions do not apply to direct contacts between executive branch officials and members of Congress, nor do they apply to contacts concerning matters pending within the executive branch," she said.
Department officials contacted members of Congress "to inform them of the pending petition so they could consider providing formal comments to EPA," Knapp wrote Tuesday in a letter to Waxman, explaining that the department "communicated the potential implications that a waiver might have on the current nationally uniform regulatory scheme for fuel-economy standards."
Waxman and officials from California and other states are battling Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, over draft legislation that would prohibit California and other states from taking tougher action than Washington to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.
Times staff writer Janet Wilson in Los Angeles contributed to this report.