EPA official's ties to China-linked university spark questions

Republican Rep. Ralph Norman says, 'This appointment showed a lack of judgment from the Biden administration

President Biden appointed a senior-level official to the Environmental Protection Agency who did not quit his job at a Hong Kong university – prompting concern among members of Congress and a government watchdog group regarding the university’s links to the Chinese government.

Chris Frey was appointed in February to serve as deputy assistant administrator for science policy at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. In May, Frey disclosed that he was on an unpaid leave of absence from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"This appointment showed a lack of judgment from the Biden administration," Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., told Fox News. "Frey will be one of the highest-level officials in the EPA."

Norman led a letter with four other Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee seeking information from the EPA about communications between Frey and the university since Jan. 20; communications between Frey and the EPA related to potential Biden administration policy on China; and all communications among EPA ethics officials regarding Frey’s prior connections with Chinese entities.


"Instead of resigning his position with HKUST, he is only taking a leave of absence, indicating Dr. Frey intends to return to work for HKUST after his service in the Biden administration," the letter says. "At a time when the Biden administration is pushing for costly climate change ‘solutions’ that benefit China, it raises questions about why a senior EPA official has such strong ties to China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases."

A banner at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Inset, Chris Frey. (Photo by Dickson Lee/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

A banner at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Inset, Chris Frey. (Photo by Dickson Lee/South China Morning Post via Getty Images) (Dickson Lee/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

China accounts for 27% of the emission of the world’s greenhouse gasses – the most of any country. The United States is a distant second at 11%, followed by India at 6%.

"No one seems to have considered the emoluments clause. He’s on a leave of absence. Why didn’t he resign?" Norman added during the interview, referring to the clause of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits a federal official from receiving anything of value from a foreign government entity or its representative. 

The government watchdog group Protect the Public’s Trust first obtained Frey’s May 11 ethics recusal statement through the Freedom of Information Act. The group’s director, Michael Chamberlain, called the university "an arm of the Chinese government."

Universities in Hong Kong have been reportedly cracking down on academic freedom among faculty and students while supporting China’s communist government. Specifically, Frey’s employer, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, suspended a group of students for holding a memorial service for a student killed during the 2019 freedom protests against the Chinese government, the New York Times reported. 


There is nothing unusual about Frey’s leave of absence, according to the EPA. 

"Dr. Frey followed EPA ethics guidelines and correctly disclosed his affiliation with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology," EPA spokesman Timothy Carroll told Fox News in an email. 

"Consistent with White House policy over several administrations, political appointees (with the exception of Senate-confirmed appointees) are permitted to take a leave of absence from an academic institution during their government tenure, provided that the required recusals are in place to avoid a potential or actual conflict of interest," Carroll continued. "Dr. Frey has executed the appropriate recusal statement and will continue to follow the guidance of ethics officials."

The EPA online biography of Frey references his post as the Glenn E. and Phyllis J. Futrell distinguished professor at North Carolina State University but makes no mention of the Hong Kong university. Frey has previously worked on EPA advisory boards and committees for clean air and for science. 

Norman, the South Carolina congressman, said this omission is another example of a lack of transparency from the Biden administration. 

Frey’s ethics recusal statement in May said he took a two-year unpaid leave from his adjunct position with the Hong Kong university – as well as from his full-time professor job at North Carolina State University – after a discussion with the EPA’s Office of General Counsel. 


"I have been advised by OGC/Ethics that I have a financial interest in North Carolina State University (NC State) and the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST) from which I have taken a two-year, unpaid leave of absence," Frey wrote in the recusal statement to the EPA. 

"Therefore, I may not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that, to my knowledge, has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of either entity unless I first obtain a written waiver or my participation is permitted by a regulatory exemption."

The recusal statement goes on to mention other entities, such as consulting work for the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department.