Political News

Emails Suggest Pruitt’s Biggest Fear Was Having to Answer an Honest Question

Posted May 7, 2018 10:02 p.m. EDT
Updated May 7, 2018 10:06 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — It was supposed to be a town hall meeting where Iowa ranchers could ask questions directly of Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. But when the agency learned that anyone would be free to ask anything, officials decided to script the questions themselves.

“My sincere apologies,” an EPA official wrote to the rancher who would be moderating the event. “We cannot do open q&a from the crowd.” She then proposed several simple questions for him to ask Pruitt, including: “What has it been like to work with President Trump?”

Details about the December event, 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 staff to maintain strict secrecy about the bulk of his daily schedule.

But a new cache of emails offers a detailed look inside the agency’s aggressive efforts to conceal his activities as a public servant. The more than 10,000 documents, made public as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Sierra Club, show that the agency’s close control of Pruitt’s 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.

Time and again, the files show, decisions turn on limiting advance public knowledge of Pruitt’s appearances to control the message. The emails, many of which are communications with Pruitt’s schedulers, show an agency that divides people into “friendly and “unfriendly” camps and that on one occasion — involving a secret visit to a Toyota plant last year — became so focused on not disclosing information that Pruitt’s corporate hosts expressed confusion about the trip.

“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.”

Pruitt testified before Congress last month that Chmielewski had resigned.

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.

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 Pruitt’s detailed calendar until the agency 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 installation at a cost of $43,000 of a 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, at the Nevada, Iowa, event for ranchers, organizers of the event informed the EPA that they had already announced that it would be open. The gathering, to celebrate Pruitt’s plans to repeal an Obama-era water regulation that many ranchers dislike "has been sold as a town hall meeting” — meaning anyone could ask questions — wrote Bill Couser, an Iowa cattle farmer who was helping to organize the 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.

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 were 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, Colorado, where he was scheduled to speak to 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.”

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.”

Shaun Kober, founder of Missouri Network Television, said “we just try to lay out the facts.”

A public relations consultant for the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, 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.”

One of Pruitt’s early events described in the files, held just a month after he had started his new job as EPA administrator, was an invitation-only breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington before some 250 executives from the nation’s largest electric utilities. Pruitt had spent the previous six years as Oklahoma’s attorney general attacking EPA regulations in court, often in coordination with energy giants.

“Whoever said you can’t have your cake and eat it too, doesn’t know what to do with cake,” Pruitt told the energy executives, according to a speech prepared for the March 2017 event.

His remarks, which have not previously been made public, indicated that utilities had gained an ally with his appointment. He intended to expand energy production, he said, while protecting the environment. But, among other things, he described his effort to repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was designed to slow climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” Pruitt said, invoking a Yogi Berra line that he would return to in speeches.

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 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, a scheduler for Pruitt who is the sister of Millan Hupp, the scheduling director. (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),” Sydney Hupp wrote. “So, yay! It’s been approved through ethics.”