Political News

For Pruitt Aides, the Boss’s Personal Life Was Part of the Job

Posted June 16, 2018 2:14 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Senior staff members at the Environmental Protection Agency frequently felt pressured by Scott Pruitt, the administrator, to help in personal matters and obtain special favors for his family, according to interviews with four current and former EPA officials who served as top political aides to Pruitt.

The officials said that Pruitt, who “had a clear sense of entitlement,” in the words of one of them, indicated that he expected staff members’ assistance with matters outside the purview of government, including calling on an executive with connections in the energy industry to help secure tickets to a sold-out football game in January at the Rose Bowl.

The aides said the administrator — who is the subject of multiple investigations over ethics and other issues but has been defended by President Donald Trump as a champion of environmental deregulation — had also made it clear that he had no hesitation in leveraging his stature as a Cabinet member to solicit favors himself.

As an example, Pruitt, shortly after taking the EPA job, reached out to the former speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates seeking help for his daughter, McKenna, in securing admission to the University of Virginia School of Law. William Howell, the former speaker, appears on Pruitt’s official EPA calendar, and he confirmed in an interview that he was approached by Pruitt and subsequently wrote a letter to the school’s dean on the daughter’s behalf.

Mary M. Wood, a spokeswoman for the university, declined to comment on the letter, which has not been previously reported, citing student privacy. Howell said he doubted his letter tipped the scales for McKenna Pruitt. A spokesman for Scott Pruitt said that he and Howell had known each other for two decades and that “letters of recommendation are normal process for an application to law school.”

Separately, at least three EPA staff members were dispatched to help McKenna Pruitt obtain a summer internship at the White House, the current and former staff members said.

Kevin Chmielewski, who was Scott Pruitt’s deputy chief of staff for operations until February, recalled a conversation last year when Pruitt instructed him and other top aides to “see what you can do” about getting the internship, a highly competitive and prized post in Washington. McKenna Pruitt was selected as an intern last summer.

“We were constantly fielding requests like this, even though this had nothing to do with running the EPA,” Chmielewski, one of the four political aides, said in an interview.

Jahan Wilcox, Scott Pruitt’s spokesman, disputed the suggestion that aides played an inappropriate role in securing the internship and that the administrator expected them to help boost his and his family’s standing.

Chmielewski left the EPA after falling out with Pruitt, but the three other aides confirmed the internship request, as well as multiple other personal directives from their boss described by Chmielewski. They said Pruitt told them that he expected a certain standard of living akin to wealthier Trump Cabinet members. The aides felt as if Pruitt — who is paid about $180,000 a year — saw them as foot soldiers in achieving that lifestyle.

“The problem is he is not Trump — he is not a billionaire,” said one of the other aides, who spoke on the condition that they not be named. “But he sincerely thinks he is.”

Trump, taking questions from reporters Friday, suggested Pruitt’s stewardship of the EPA was paramount. “I’m not happy about certain things, but he’s done a fantastic job running the EPA, which is very overriding,” the president said.

The aides said EPA staff members helped arrange meetings and phone calls for Pruitt with influential donors to his past campaigns and political causes in Oklahoma, where he served as a state lawmaker and attorney general before joining the Trump administration. The appointments — including with Philip Anschutz, a Denver-based billionaire — were kept off Pruitt’s public schedule, the aides said, because it was clear the sessions were not about EPA business, even though agency staff was involved in setting them up.

Aides have also been deployed on missions related to Pruitt’s personal entertainment.

One aide, Millan Hupp, helped book his travel to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, where Pruitt had secured seats near the 50-yard line for the face value of $175 each, documents show. The tickets, for Pruitt and his wife and two children, were purchased five days before the sold-out New Year’s Day game this year.

Pruitt bought the tickets, the records show, from a special allotment for the University of Oklahoma, which appeared in the game against the University of Georgia. Tickets for equivalent seats were on sale on the secondary market for as much as seven times the price Pruitt paid, data from two ticket companies show.

He obtained the tickets with the help of Renzi Stone, an Oklahoma university regent who runs Saxum, a large marketing firm with energy industry clients that have included the American Petroleum Institute and GE Oil and Gas.

Stone, in an email to The New York Times, confirmed that he had intervened on Pruitt’s behalf to help “navigate the purchase of tickets.”

“He asked. I was happy to assist,” Stone wrote, adding that he had known Pruitt since 2001 and considered him a friend.

He later wrote on Twitter that Pruitt had inquired about the tickets through an aide.

In a letter Thursday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Stone to provide any communication with Pruitt, as well as any documentation pertaining to the purchase of the Rose Bowl tickets. He also wrote that at least one of Stone’s clients had regulatory matters pending before the EPA.

“Plains All American Pipeline,” Cummings said in his letter, “currently has a petition before the EPA to discharge hydrostatic test water from a pipeline in Corpus Christi, Texas.” Stone said on Twitter that “we don’t do any work for clients at EPA” and would be responding to Cummings. A spokesman for Plains All American Pipeline said its association with Saxum ended last November.

Wilcox, the EPA spokesman, said in an email that Cummings “is misconstruing the facts.” Stone “simply connected Pruitt to the athletic department,” he said. “Pruitt purchased the tickets at face value from the OU athletic department. To report otherwise, is false.”

The political aides said that Pruitt’s desire to use his job for benefits unrelated to his EPA work helped explain other actions that have been the subject of public scrutiny, including his first-class airline travel, an aide’s effort to help Pruitt’s wife get work with a conservative political group, and another aide’s intervening with the chief executive of the Chick-fil-A fast-food chain to help his wife set up a franchise, as The Washington Post first reported.

Pruitt’s repeated requests of his staff have led some important backers, including Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to suggest that Pruitt may have crossed the line and should perhaps step down.

“I’m afraid my good friend Scott Pruitt has done some things that really surprised me,” Inhofe told Laura Ingraham, a conservative television and radio host, this week. “If that doesn’t stop I’m going to be forced to be in a position where I say, ‘Scott, you’re not doing your job.'”

Questions about Pruitt’s behavior as administrator have led to at least a dozen investigations across the federal government. The newest inquiry, by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, is examining Pruitt’s personnel practices and allegations that he may have used his EPA office for political purposes, people with knowledge of the investigation said. At least two former EPA officials said investigators had contacted them. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt earned an annual salary of about $133,000, and he had assets between $320,000 and $800,000, mostly in investment accounts, according to his disclosure documents. That included between $15,000 and $50,000 in a cash account. He reported a public employee’s retirement plan worth $100,000 to $250,000.His wife reported no income.

He also said he owed between $500,000 and $1 million on his $1.18 million home in Tulsa.

The requests to his staff for assistance began on his arrival in Washington, the four political aides said.

Pruitt and his daughter lived at first in a Capitol Hill condominium that Pruitt rented for $50 a night, even as the husband of the unit’s co-owner lobbied Pruitt on behalf of clients. Pruitt later pressed a political aide to help him find a new apartment, which he then complained was too noisy.

Finding work for the administrator’s wife, Marlyn, also became a top focus for agency workers, the current and former aides said.

Despite efforts by a scheduler for Scott Pruitt, a deal for a Chick-fil-A franchise did not materialize for Marlyn Pruitt. But a spokesman for Judicial Crisis Network, a dark-money group that helps get conservative judges named to federal courts, hired Marlyn Pruitt last fall after her husband’s aides and a longtime supporter intervened, agency staff members who worked on the effort said. Scott Pruitt’s interest in meeting with former political donors, the current and former aides said, was based on expectations that he might want to run for the U.S. Senate or some other office.

During a trip to Colorado last August, Pruitt reserved time for a meeting with Anschutz in what was listed only as a “private meeting.” Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, helped set up the meeting, according to agency officials.

Chmielewski, the former deputy chief of staff, said that when he arrived at the office of Anschutz, a major Republican fundraiser and owner of the Oklahoman newspaper, he questioned why the meeting would be among the administrator’s visits that day. Chmielewski said an agency colleague told him it was about fundraising.

Wilcox said Pruitt was allowed to set up personal meetings during his trips. A spokesman for Anschutz declined to comment.

Pruitt also had his staff include various sporting events in his schedule, which involved bringing his considerable EPA security detail with him, the current and former aides said.

Among the sporting events aides helped arrange for Pruitt to attend were two Washington Nationals baseball games, including one on July 5, when they negotiated access for Pruitt to the team’s batting practice before a scheduled matchup with the New York Mets, according to emails obtained by the Sierra Club.

“Thanks for taking my call this morning! If we could arrange for Administrator Pruitt to come to batting practice before July 5ths game, that would be wonderful!” Madeline Morris, then an EPA aide, wrote in an email to the Nationals’ vice president for community engagement, Gregory McCarthy.

Emails show that Pruitt’s wife and two children also planned to attend the July game, and that EPA officials coordinated security arrangements and a motorcade with the Nationals’ staff. The game was postponed because of inclement weather, and it is unclear whether Pruitt attended another game instead. Jennifer Giglio, a spokeswoman for the Nationals, declined to comment.

Pruitt did score free tickets — for himself, his wife and his chief of staff — to a Sept. 28 Nationals game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, according to a spokesman for Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah, who provided the tickets and said he used the game as a chance to discuss a Superfund cleanup project at a shuttered gold mine in his state.

“The two sat side by side for a few innings and discussed the Gold King Mine issues,” Paul Edwards, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement.

Last fall, Pruitt was on hand for at least three home games in Norman, Oklahoma, as the University of Oklahoma’s football team steamrollered its way to a conference championship, university records show.

Days before a game in mid-September against Tulane University, an EPA staff member wrote the campus police requesting four passes for Pruitt’s security detail.

The university provided documentation showing that Pruitt paid face value for two tickets for three home games. It also acknowledged that Pruitt was given special access to a group of 750 reserved tickets at the Rose Bowl. “Mr. Pruitt purchased his tickets from a block of tickets that the university holds for discretionary use at all of its teams’ games,” the university said in a statement.

Pruitt on Thursday evening demonstrated how he had kept Trump, at least until now, focused on his business-friendly agenda at the EPA, not his personal behavior and various investigations. On Twitter, he posted a photograph of himself sitting at Trump’s desk at the White House, announcing that the EPA had just rolled back another Obama-era regulation, a clean water rule.

“Happy birthday, Mr. President!” he added.