The Transportation Department acknowledged Tuesday encouraging members of Congress to weigh in with the EPA on California's request to implement global warming controls on automakers.
California officials criticized the intervention by one executive branch agency with another as improper and possibly illegal, but a Transportation Department attorney said it wasn't.
The Environmental Protection Agency is accepting comments through Friday on whether to grant California a waiver to put in place a state law that would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from cars and 18 percent from sport utility vehicles beginning in 2009.
If California gets the waiver, at least 11 other states are ready to follow its lead and implement those same controls.
The auto industry favors one nationwide regulation, saying letting states have their own rules could lead to a patchwork of regulations.
That's the outcome a Transportation Department official warned of in a voicemail message left for a congressional aide and made public Tuesday by a Democratic committee chairman. In response the Transportation Department's acting general counsel, Rosalind Knapp, contended that the agency was simply providing information to members of Congress.
"DOT contacted members of Congress to inform them of the pending petition so they could consider providing formal comments to EPA," Knapp wrote late Tuesday to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "DOT's actions in no way violated anti-lobbying restrictions."
Knapp did not say how many members of Congress were contacted or who, and a Transportation Department spokesman declined to comment further.
Earlier in the day, Waxman sent a letter to the Transportation Department demanding answers about the voicemail message left by Heideh Shahmoradi, a Transportation special assistant for government affairs. Waxman obtained the message from the lawmaker who received it and asked to remain anonymous.
In the message, Shahmoradi said that if California gets its waiver a "patchwork of regulations ... could have significant impacts on the light truck and car industry."
"We're gauging to see if your boss would be interested in submitting comments or reaching out to your governor's office for them to submit comments to the docket, since this would greatly impact auto facilities within your district," she said.
Waxman wrote that the call "raises serious concerns" as an improper or possibly illegal use of federal resources, and at the very least "suggests the presence of an improper hidden agenda." He asked for records of any other contacts and said he wanted to depose Shahmoradi.
California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez called the Transportation Department's intervention "a whispering campaign by administration officials to try and derail one of the most important tools out there to fight global warming."
The EPA has not indicated when, or if, it will grant the waiver.