UPDATE, July 25: Rivers’ op-ed appears to have been pulled by The Post and Courier. The link to the commentary now goes to a page that reads, “Error 404 - This page is either no longer available or has been relocated.” A search for phrases from the op-ed on the paper’s site yielded no results.

Charles Rowe, the editorial page editor, didn’t have much to say when asked earlier today if the paper had any update on the situation. Rowe did not immediately respond to another inquiry this afternoon, after the op-ed disappeared.

Rivers, however, hasn’t been quiet. He has repeatedly posted to his Twitter account a letter that indicates he had permission—from a lobbyist—to use industry-written material in his op-ed. 

“The piece was written by a coalition of industries that are terribly concerned about the detrimental impacts this rule will have on property owners across the country and to be used in part or in full as members of the industries see fit,” wrote Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.

The construction industry is part of that coalition, and in his op-ed, Rivers called himself a supporter of homebuilders serving the people of South Carolina. A “supporter” is not quite the same thing as a “member.” But either way, he appears to have used the piece as he—and the people who drafted it—saw fit.  

Original article published July 23 appears below.

CHARLESTON, SC — What does cattle ranching in Wyoming have to do with building homes in South Carolina?

More than you’d think, apparently, judging by a recent newspaper op-ed by a Charleston lawmaker and a PR package from a beef lobbying group in Cheyenne. The two pieces use nearly identical language in their opposition to a controversial EPA proposal that would clarify and expand regulations on small bodies of water.

On Monday, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The Post and Courier in Charleston, published an op-ed opposing the proposal under the byline of Rep. Samuel Rivers, a Republican pastor who represents the area. The first paragraph declares, “The purpose of this column is to provide South Carolina’s property and business owners with insight into the proposed expansion and the devastating impacts it could have on the building and construction industry in South Carolina.” Later in the piece, Rivers identifies himself as “a supporter of home builders serving the people of South Carolina.” (UPDATE, 7/24: According to public campaign filings with the state Ethics Commission, Rivers received $250 from the SC Builders PAC on June 4.)

So it’s notable that the commentary is a near dead-ringer to a sample op-ed being circulated by the cattle ranchers lobby out west. The stated goal of that piece (see page 7 of this PDF) is to provide “farmers and ranchers with a taste of the proposed expansion and the devastating impacts it could have on their operations.” But six of the 12 paragraphs in the P&C commentary either closely mirror or reflect verbatim the ranching op-ed.

For instance, this is a passage from the document with ties to Big Beef:

Despite Supreme Court rulings striking down broad interpretations of their authority over isolated waters the agencies keep trying to expand federal jurisdiction over ditches, ponds and puddles. The agencies latest attempt is the most brazen, and according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is “cleverly written,” leading industry to believe the proposal is intended to be an end-run around Congress and the Supreme Court.

Many in the agricultural community have called this proposal the largest land grab in history, and I don’t think that is far off the mark, if at all. If landowners are required to get a CWA permit for spraying pesticides, applying manure, or simply grazing their cattle, there is no way to describe it but “landuse planning.” Once a responsibility of city and county governments, the federal agencies will now have the power to either give you a permit or not and thereby dictate what activities you can perform on your own property.

And here’s a passage from Rep. Rivers’ op-ed:

Despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings striking down broad interpretations of their authority over isolated waters, the agencies keep trying to expand federal jurisdiction over ditches, ponds and puddles. The agencies’ latest attempt is the most brazen, and according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is “cleverly written,” leading industry to believe the proposal is intended to be an end-run around Congress and the Supreme Court.

Many in the regulated community have called this proposal the largest land grab in history. Once it was the responsibility of city and county governments; the federal agencies will now have the power to either issue a permit or not and thereby dictate what activities you can perform on your own property.

There’s lots more like that.

Contacted Wednesday, The Post and Courier’s editorial page editor, Charles Rowe, said the P&C checks for what’s known as “astroturfing” in letters to the editor before publishing them, but didn’t recall issues arising with a column before. In view of this situation, we’ll be looking at doing more along those lines with our guest columns, he said.

Rowe didn’t offer further comment, and didn’t immediately address a question about whether the paper regretted that the op-ed ran. 

So, what’s the original source here? It’s hard to say.

The undated ranching info packet, which is posted on the website of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, appears to have been created by the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. Ashley McDonald, lawyer for the NCBA, told me her group is probably responsible for the content, but also that the NCBA shares documents, legal analysis, and talking points with several other groups and industries that are collaborating on the EPA issue. 

For his part, Rivers told me he wrote the op-ed, and insisted he’s never spoken with anyone from the Cattleman’s Association. He said the EPA’s new rule came up months ago at a meeting with other lawmakers, and he later asked a source—he declined to identify who—for more information on the topic. He submitted his op-ed in mid-June, according to the P&C, about a month before it actually ran.

While Rivers didn’t want to say who gave him his information on the topic—“I don’t care to share it with you at this point”—he indicated it was possible he and Big Beef both got their material from a common source. That is plausible. Reporting on resistance to the rules in Congress makes clear that homebuilders and ranchers are some of the most active opponents, and they’re clearly working together on the issue. A Missouri congressman holding hearings on the rules emphasized their purported impact on “homebuilders and cattlemen.” McDonald of the NCBA confirmed a working relationship on the new EPA rule between the homebuilding and beef industries.

The close overlap between the two pieces suggests more than just a common resource, though. Still, Rivers defended his op-ed when I pushed him on the similarities.

“Those are my words with the information that was provided to me, let me put it like that,” he said, adding:

You can say it’s word for word, but when we’re getting our information from the same source, and probably the same source, that’s probably what happened. But I didn’t copy and paste that at all. No, no, no. It didn’t happen with me. But when something’s going on we call around and find out what’s going on and see what type of language one person is using, the whole association or what have you.

It’s generally assumed that politicians often don’t write their own op-eds—the task falls to a communications aide, with a sign-off by the boss who puts his or her name on it when it goes to the newspaper. But cribbing notes from an industry group is something else—maybe not so uncommon, but usually not so obvious.

While the rancher’s document might not have been Rivers’ direct source here, Big Beef wouldn’t have an issue with a politician lifting its work.

“Those documents kind of went out there for anyone and everyone across the country, so no, we don’t have a problem with it,” says McDonald, the NCBA attorney. “Those are things we kind of give out for that purpose.”

Whether The Post and Courier also feels satisfied once it has had a chance to fully look into the situation remains to be seen. We’ll update if and when we hear more.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's Rocky Mountain correspondent based in Colorado. A former alt-weekly reporter in the Palmetto State, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Texas Observer, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.