Lead EPA Official Working on East Palestine Claims She Didn’t Know Husband’s Law Firm Reps Norfolk Southern

Agency ethics staff looks away from striking conflict of interest.

(Washington, DC) – Watchdog Functional Government Initiative (FGI) has uncovered records exposing a blatant conflict of interest among a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) involved in the subsequent congressional investigation of the East Palestine train wreck. FGI has learned from FOIA documents that Deputy General Counsel for Environmental Programs and Oversight Natalia Sorgente worked for four months directly on the aftermath of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment before informing the department’s ethics office that her husband’s law firm represented the railroad responsible for the disaster.

The Norfolk Southern derailment and toxic chemical spill that occurred on February 3, 2023, was the centerpiece of national news coverage for nearly a month. On February 21, the EPA legally ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the spill. Mrs. Sorgente, a Biden appointee, was involved in the EPA response as a senior member of the agency’s Solid Waste and Emergency Response Law Office (SWERLO) and through her “role working on Congressional oversight.” It was not until June 3, 2023, that she told the Ethics Office about her husband’s connection to the primary target of her agency’s investigation.

Mrs. Sorgente claimed ignorance, asserting that her husband, Joel Millar, hadn’t known his firm, WilmerHale, was involved in the case despite his 23-year tenure with the firm. The incredulous claim is only heightened after considering the extent of WilmerHale’s representation in matters very likely to have touched on matters involving his wife’s work as a senior EPA official. For instance, according to American Lawyer, WilmerHale made known its representation of Norfolk Southern “in many of the inquiries arising out of the events in Ohio” and that their work “spanned a number of agencies and as it relates to congressional oversight, a number of different congressional committees …”

Despite waiting four months before raising the potential conflict of interest with agency ethics officials, Deputy GC Sorgente lobbied to remain on the case. While ethics officials told her she must recuse, Ms. Sorgente resisted, “Given that it may be hard to replace me, is this something where a waiver might be considered?” Based on records obtained by FGI, ethics officials quickly appeared to give in to Sorgente’s request, stating “it is enough for you to know what your recusal obligation is” and requiring no further inquiry. The records raise numerous red flags about both the actions of Deputy General Counsel Sorgente and the EPA ethics officials who appeared to dismiss the apparent conflict of interest without much fanfare.

Peter McGinnis, spokesman for FGI, issued the following statement:

“The EPA is asking us to believe the unbelievable. Even if Mr. Millar didn’t know Norfolk Southern was a client, somebody there did. Is there no elevator chitchat or watercooler talk at WilmerHale? Did nobody in his office know what Mr. Millar’s wife does for a living? And it certainly seems impossible that Ms. Sorgente could field congressional oversight issues on the EPA’s highest priority challenge without knowing who was representing the company responsible for it. And to top it off, the ethics gatekeepers seemed remarkably disinterested in putting an end to this apparent conflict of interest. Dysfunction barely begins to describe what we are seeing at the EPA.”

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