Political News

‘Smoke and Mirrors’: Emails Detail Pruitt’s Drive for Secrecy at the EPA

Posted May 7, 2018 1:46 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The invitation-only breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington gathered 250 executives from the nation’s largest electric utilities, assembled in a ballroom to meet with Scott Pruitt, who a month before had started his new job as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pruitt had spent the previous six years as Oklahoma’s attorney general attacking EPA regulations in court, often in coordination with energy giants. Now he ran the agency and he was ready to lay out his vision for the energy executives. “Whoever said you can’t have your cake and eat it too, doesn’t know what to do with cake,” Pruitt said, according to a speech prepared for the March 2017 event.

Details from the breakfast, and dozens of other official appearances from Pruitt’s scandal-plagued first year at the EPA, have until now been hidden from public view as a result of an extraordinary effort by Pruitt and his aides to maintain strict secrecy about the bulk of his daily schedule.

But a new cache of emails covering most of Pruitt’s first year heading the EPA shows that the agency’s close control of his public events is driven more by a desire to avoid tough questions from the public than by concerns about security, contradicting Pruitt’s long-standing defense of his secretiveness.

The more than 10,000 documents, made public as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, offer visibility for the first time not only into many of Pruitt’s appearances nationwide but into the agency’s aggressive concealment of his activities as a public servant. The files show an agency focused on dividing people into “friendly and “unfriendly” camps and which, on one occasion, a secret visit to a Toyota plant, became so focused on not disclosing the trip that his hosts expressed confusion about the publicity value of the visit.

In another instance, planning what was billed as a “town hall” discussion for farmers in Iowa, the EPA emails show that the chief concern among Pruitt’s top aides was to control who would actually be allowed to ask him questions. Ultimately, the agency scripted questions for Pruitt to answer from the stage.

“The security aspect is smoke and mirrors,” said Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, who is one of several former EPA officials who have said that they were fired or sidelined for disagreeing with Pruitt’s management practices.

“He didn’t want anybody to question anything,” Chmielewski said, adding that Pruitt “just doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a public figure.”

Three other current and former agency officials, who asked not to be identified because they still work for the government, expressed similar views.

The EPA did not respond to requests for comment about the documents, which detail Pruitt’s plans for travel and appearances nationwide. In the past, EPA officials have said that Pruitt has faced an unprecedented number of death threats, which account for the size of his security force and the agency’s refusal to make public his daily schedule. Pruitt testified before Congress last month that Chmielewski had resigned.

All politicians are attuned to image-building, of course, and employ staffs whose job is to control the environments in which they appear. Pruitt, though, has carried the practice to an extreme.

Breaking with all of his predecessors at the EPA for the last 25 years, as well as other members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, he does not release a list of public speaking events and he discloses most official trips only after they are over. Pruitt doesn’t hold news conferences, and in one episode, journalists who learned of an event were ejected from the premises after an EPA official threatened to call the police.

The EPA also declined to make public a copy of Pruitt’s detailed calendar until it was sued by The New York Times and other organizations.

More recently, the agency moved to require that any documents related to Pruitt that are gathered as a result of Freedom of Information requests be provided to his political aides 48 hours in advance for an “awareness review” before they are made public, “to insure that leadership is aware of public disclosures,” a June email said.

Pruitt currently faces 11 investigations into his spending and management at the EPA, many of which stem from the appetite for secrecy. He is under investigation for first-class travel at taxpayer expense, his elaborate security detail and the purchase of a $43,000 soundproof booth for making telephone calls.

Separately, a New York Times investigation found that, in 2003 when he served as a legislator in Oklahoma, Pruitt bought a home in a transaction that involved two lobbyists with business before the state, and disguised the purchase by using a shell company.

The emails document Pruitt’s top aides taking steps to block the public from his appearances.

For example, in Nevada, Iowa, organizers of an event celebrating Pruitt’s plans to repeal an Obama-era water regulation that many ranchers dislike informed the EPA that they had already announced the event as open. “This has been sold as a town hall meeting” — meaning anyone could ask questions — wrote Bill Couser, an Iowa cattle farmer who was helping organize the December event, in an email to the EPA.

In Washington, EPA officials objected.

“With a crowd of 300 people plus open press, we have to stick with the questions we currently have,” Millan Hupp, Pruitt’s scheduling director, replied. “My sincere apologies for causing any difficulty but we cannot do open q&a from the crowd.”

The agency prevailed. Pruitt answered questions presented to him by Couser that were written by EPA officials, according to the emails and a video recording of the event.

Efforts like these to prevent reporters from attending events were not a part of the playbook for past EPA administrators, according to spokeswomen for Christine Todd Whitman, who served in the George W. Bush administration, and Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy, who served under President Barack Obama. “They didn’t selectively inform the press or take any steps to keep things secret,” Heather Grizzle, a spokeswoman for Whitman, said.

Pruitt takes a different approach. The emails show agency officials defining prospective guests at events as friendly or unfriendly, and reorganizing events at the last minute if there are concerns that people who are considered unfriendly might show up.

“Sixteen friendly Industry leaders will be invited to attend they will arrive at 8:30 with the Administrator expected to arrive at 9:00 a.m.,” said one memo, shared among top EPA officials last September, in advance of a visit by Pruitt to Colorado Springs, where Pruitt was scheduled to speak with the National Association of Homebuilders. The event was closed to the public and not announced publicly ahead of time.

Gerald M. Howard, the organization’s top executive, “will moderate Q&A on Industry issues set forth in advance and possibly from the audience — who are all industry friendly and supportive of Mr. Pruitt and his efforts,” the description said. In another instance, after a Missouri news outlet discovered, and tweeted, that Pruitt was planning to speak to about 150 representatives of electric cooperatives and power-plant owners last April, EPA staff went into damage-control mode.

The meeting had not been publicly disclosed. Tate Bennett, who as associate administrator at the EPA is in charge of environmental education, asked Barry Hart of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives if the news organization, Missouri Network Television, was “the friendly outlet.” Shaun Kober, founder of Missouri Network Television, said “we just try to lay out the facts."

Hart replied, “It is, but since it’s a public tweet you have to assume the world now knows including all news media … even unfriendly.”

The group, in consultation with the EPA, had already discussed a strategy to counteract any negative comments that appeared on social media.

“Our plan will be to promote the feel-good activity and news from the event,” Gus Wagner, a public relations executive working with organizers, wrote in one email shared with the EPA. “Comments that are positive will be liked and possibly shared,” he wrote. “Comments that are derogatory and/or abusive will be hidden from public view. Commenter receives no notification this hiding has happened.”

Sometimes the EPA’s approach to public relations — issuing announcements only after events were over — confused its hosts. Among them was Stephen Ciccone, a vice president for government affairs at Toyota Motor North America, which organized a visit by Pruitt to its Texas auto plant in August.

“I thought you all did not want any press coverage?” Ciccone wrote, unsure as to why the EPA would issue a news release at all.

An email back from the EPA explained the plan. The agency welcomed coverage as long as it was on the agency’s terms.

A release would be made “highlighting all the stops Administrator Pruitt makes during his visit to Texas,” the email said. As planned, government-issued photos of a smiling Pruitt and executives from Toyota were posted on the EPA’s website soon after the event was over, describing it as an “action tour.”

The effort to control the event almost fell apart when one journalist caught wind of the trip.

“We just received an inquiry from a CBS News reporter in Dallas about the visit,” Ciccone wrote to the EPA on the day of the event. “We won’t reply until the visit is over.”

In another instance not previously made public, Pruitt last June aided one of his longtime supporters, Richard Smotkin, who at that time was a Comcast lobbyist and who later helped organize Pruitt’s controversial trip to Morocco. (A month after that December trip, Smotkin became a $40,000-a-month foreign agent promoting Morocco’s interests abroad.)

Smotkin’s June request ran into ethics questions within the EPA: He had invited Pruitt to a fundraiser for a nonprofit group that Smotkin helps run, the American Council of Young Political Leaders, which offers foreign-exchange programs for emerging political leaders. At the event, Pruitt would be presented with an award in the form of a globe engraved with his name.

“The Ethics department is asking me these questions about the event,” wrote Sydney Hupp, Pruitt’s scheduler (and the sister of Millan Hupp, who is also a scheduler for Pruitt. Both are former Pruitt campaign aides.) The questions had to do with the appropriateness of receiving an award at a fundraising event.

After a series of emails, Millan Hupp wrote back to the staff at the nonprofit group with a solution: Don’t refer to Pruitt’s job during the presentation.

“Yes, the Administrator may attend the event, and yes, he may receive the globe. But please do ensure that they refer to him as the Honorable (as opposed to the EPA Administrator),” Hupp wrote. “So, yay! It’s been approved through ethics.”