Torrey resigns from Trump transition, EPA picks emerge

By Sara Wyant and Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2016 - Michael Torrey, who was advising President-elect Donald Trump on setting up his administration at the Agriculture Department, has resigned from the transition team because of the five-year lobbying ban.

“Each transition has their own policies for the involvement of registered lobbyists. When asked recently to terminate lobbying registration for clients whom I serve in order to continue my role with the transition, I respectfully resigned from my role,” Torrey said in a statement released by his firm Friday.

Torrey, who served as deputy chief of staff at USDA during the George W. Bush administration, later founded a firm, Michael Torrey Associates, that has represented the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau, the American Beverage Association, Dean Foods Co., WhiteWave Foods and other clients in the food and agriculture sectors.

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The five-year lobbying ban applies to prospective presidential appointees as well as members of the transition team and the agency launching teams, groups of personnel who are being assigned to departments to work with existing officials.

Torrey said he had been asked several months ago to serve as a volunteer to advise on the transition at USDA.

“Throughout my time assisting the transition effort, I have adhered closely to the code of ethical conduct and confidentiality agreement that was provided to me,” Torrey said.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said Thursday the lobbying ban would “ensure that service to the nation is truly first.”

Some lawmakers expressed concern about the impact that the lobbying ban could have on the quality of administrators that Trump could find for USDA and other departments. Citing Torrey by name, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told Agri-Pulse that being a lobbyist is not a bad thing, and that the administration will need agency heads that have expertise and experience.

“If someone is facing a five-year ban they're not going to sign on, but their advice should be heeded,” Roberts said.

Veterans of the department said they were concerned that the ban would leave the department with weaker administrators who could have trouble overcoming resistance from the bureaucracy to policy changes.

Dale Moore, who was chief of staff at USDA when Torrey worked in the department, expressed disappointment that he was leaving the transition team. Moore is now executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. 

Torrey, who grew up on a Kansas farm, also served as adviser to presidential candidate and then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and as a special assistant at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Torrey's “willingness to step down and nip some of this controversy that people are trying to create in the bud shows he's the kind of person who should be" involved in the transition, Moore said. "That's the kind of thinking and selflessness that's needed."

The transition office is expected to announce launching teams next Tuesday for USDA, EPA and other domestic agencies, including the departments of Interior, and Health and Human Services. 

In other transition news, two members of Trump's agricultural advisory committee may be candidates for the job of EPA Administrator. Lawyer and Illinois farm owner Gary Baise, who is currently a principal at OFW Law and is co-head of the firm's litigation practice, would bring a wealth of experience to the position.

Baise was the chief of staff to the first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator and later became director of the EPA's Office of Legislation. He served as executive assistant to the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, associate deputy attorney general, and acting deputy attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice.

He specializes in litigation related to a wide variety of environmental issues and has defended several farmers in wetlands enforcement cases under the Clean Water Act.

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Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who was spotted on her way to meetings in Trump Tower on Thursday, is considered another potential candidate for the top EPA job.

Rutledge, who married a farmer last year, has served as deputy counsel to then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, deputy prosecuting attorney, and attorney for the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services. In the past, she has criticized EPA's anti-haze regulation - arguing that it's a decision that should be left up to state control.

Also Friday, Trump announced that he would nominate Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general and Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo to run the Central Intelligence Agency. Sessions has been a strong critic of illegal immigration and expansion of importation of low-skilled foreign workers though he has said he agrees that farms need access to temporary guest workers.

Pompeo is best known in agriculture for sponsoring a House-passed bill to bar states from requiring the labeling of foods with biotech ingredients. The preemption measure was eventually folded by the Senate into a larger bill requiring disclosure of GMOs.

(Updated at 4 p.m.)

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