Black campaign collects $225K from donors linked to company benefiting from “pollution loophole” she promoted

Donors linked to a Crossville, Tenn., truck dealership known as Fitzgerald Glider provided 12 percent of contributions to the gubernatorial campaign of U.S. Rep. Diane Black, reports the New York Times under the headline, “How $225,000 Can Help Secure a Pollution Loophole at Trump’s E.P.A.” Black is reported to have played a pivotal role in promoting a “loophole” in federal law that helps the company.

There is something unusual about the big rigs sold by the Fitzgeralds: They are equipped with rebuilt diesel engines that do not need to comply with rules on modern emissions controls. That makes them cheaper to operate, but means that they spew 40 to 55 times the air pollution of other new trucks, according to federal estimates, including toxins blamed for asthma, lung cancer and a range of other ailments.

The special treatment for the Fitzgerald trucks is made possible by a loophole in federal law that the Obama administration tried to close, and the Trump administration is now championing. The trucks, originally intended as a way to reuse a relatively new engine and other parts after an accident, became attractive for their ability to evade modern emissions standards and other regulations.

The survival of this loophole is a story of money, politics and suspected academic misconduct, according to interviews and government and private documents, and has been facilitated by Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has staked out positions in environmental fights that benefit the Trump administration’s corporate backers.

Fitzgerald welcomed President Trump at one of its dealerships during the campaign, and it sells baseball caps with the slogan “Make Trucks Great Again.”

…“This just does not make any sense to me,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who served as head of the E.P.A. during the first George W. Bush administration. “Everybody breathes the same air, Democrats or Republicans. It does not matter. This is about keeping people healthy.”

But the Fitzgerald family has had influential allies. In addition to Mr. Pruitt, they include Representative Diane Black, a Republican who is a candidate for Tennessee governor, and Tennessee Technological University, a state university that produced a study minimizing pollution problems associated with the trucks.

Ms. Black introduced legislation in 2015 to protect the loophole when it was first in line to be eliminated by a stricter diesel emissions rule under the Obama administration. That bill failed, but after the election of Mr. Trump, she turned to Mr. Pruitt to carve out an exemption to the new rule — scheduled to take effect last month — and presented him with the study from Tennessee Tech.

Fitzgerald had not only paid for the study, which has roiled the faculty at Tennessee Tech and is the subject of an internal investigation, but it had also offered to build a new research center for the university on land owned by the company. And in the six weeks before Mr. Pruitt announced in November that he would grant the exemption, Fitzgerald business entities, executives and family members contributed at least $225,000 to Ms. Black’s campaign for governor, campaign disclosure records show.

The multiple donors allowed the company to circumvent a Tennessee state law intended to limit the size of campaign contributions by corporations and political action committees. The donations — many of which came through a series of limited liability companies tied to the family — represented 12 percent of the money Ms. Black had raised from outside sources through last month, the records show.

Tommy Fitzgerald, an owner of Fitzgerald, said the actions by Ms. Black and Mr. Pruitt were good public policy and not special favors to his company.

“I don’t know why anyone would want to kill all these jobs,” Mr. Fitzgerald said, referring to the several hundred people he said he employs at his dealerships, many of them in rural areas. “It does not make any sense.”

Chris Hartline, a spokesman for Ms. Black, said the congresswoman had stood up for a constituent and was not influenced by the campaign donations, which he said complied with state law. “There are very few companies willing to try and keep manufacturing jobs in rural Tennessee today, and Diane fights hard to support the few that do,” Mr. Hartline said.

An E.P.A. spokeswoman, Liz Bowman, said that Mr. Pruitt remained committed to protecting clean air. But, she said, he agreed with a legal argument made by Ms. Black and Fitzgerald that the agency did not have the authority to limit sales.

“E.P.A. is acting on behalf of anyone who sees merit in upholding and perhaps even bolstering the credibility of our laws and the role of Congress,” Ms. Bowman said.

She said that the money donated to Ms. Black had no impact on the decision by Mr. Pruitt.

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