Political News

New Emails Suggest Pruitt Discussed Hiring a Friend of Lobbyist Landlord

Posted June 24, 2018 8:22 p.m. EDT

Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, discussed hiring a friend of a lobbyist family that owned a condominium he was renting for $50 a night, newly released emails suggest. The files also show communications involving the lobbyist’s client interests that have not previously been disclosed, suggesting a closer relationship between the lobbyist, J. Steven Hart, and the agency than previously known.

The emails, released as part of a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, an environmental group, contradict early assertions by Pruitt and Hart that Hart hadn’t lobbied the EPA last year after concerns arose that Hart’s wife had rented the condo to Pruitt.

The potential hiring of Hart’s family friend was discussed in emails between Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, and Hart, who was chairman of the Washington lobbying firm Williams & Jensen and whose wife, Vicki Hart, rented the condo to Pruitt. Other subjects discussed during and after Pruitt rented Vicki Hart’s condo included refrigerant chemicals, which was raised on behalf of Coca-Cola, and the Paris Agreement — the global climate pact to address climate change — discussed on behalf of the global bank HSBC.

The emails also show that Steven Hart suggested other potential hires to the EPA, including one person who he emphasized was a Republican and an African-American, on behalf of an executive of the philanthropic arm of the pork giant Smithfield Foods.

The effort to find employment for the Harts’ family friend, Jimmy Guiliano, a recent college graduate who had applied for a policy position at EPA, came in April 2017, when Pruitt was living in Vicki Hart’s condo. Attaching the young man’s résumé, Steven Hart told Jackson that his wife “has talked to Scott about this kid who is important to us. He told Vicki to talk to you about how to handle this.”

“On it,” Jackson responded.

The emails offer a deeper look inside Hart’s relationship with the EPA, where he was on friendly terms with the administrator’s chief of staff. In the months since it was reported that Pruitt rented the $50-a-night condo, located in an upscale Washington neighborhood, Hart, Pruitt and the EPA have offered several explanations of the relationship.

After initially saying Hart had not represented clients with business before the EPA, Hart’s former firm in June filed new lobbying disclosure forms to acknowledge he had in fact advocated on behalf of Coca-Cola, the Financial Oversight and Management Control Board of Puerto Rico and Smithfield Foods.

Pruitt told Fox News on April 4 that Hart did not lobby the EPA. Agency officials have said to The New York Times that the housing arrangement was consistent with federal ethics regulations and that Pruitt paid market rates, and as a result renting the unit did not represent a gift (which would be prohibited by federal ethics laws).

Pruitt faces 13 federal investigations into his spending and management practices. At least two of those are aimed at Pruitt’s living arrangements and the circumstances of his $50-a-night lease for the days he slept in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Pruitt lived in the condo from the time he moved to Washington at the beginning of the Trump administration through July 2017, according to the EPA.

In a statement through his spokesman, Hart said his wife’s status as Pruitt’s landlord had no bearing on his relationship with the EPA. “As I have said repeatedly, I never received any special treatment from Administrator Pruitt or had any undue influence over the Environmental Protection Agency,” Hart said. He called Jackson “an old friend” from before his time at the EPA who “has never performed a special favor on my behalf.”

The emails about Guiliano continued in May when Hart, copying his wife, Vicki, emailed Jackson to say that the applicant would soon be in town. “Would you have time to meet with him?” Steven Hart asked.

There is no response to that from Jackson in the emails released, and it is unclear whether a meeting happened. But Guiliano did not get a job at the EPA, according to an agency spokesman.

Guiliano did not respond to a request for comment sent via Facebook.

Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for Pruitt, said in a statement that the correspondence did not indicate any impropriety on the part of the EPA or Jackson. He noted that Hart and Jackson have known one another for years. “Many of these emails were unsolicited and did not impact any agency policy outcomes,” Wilcox said.

Regarding Guiliano, he said, “The agency accepts career recommendations from a number of acquaintances. Ultimately, Mr. Guiliano was not hired.” According to the newly released EPA emails, on Aug. 21 last year, Hart emailed Jackson on behalf of Coca-Cola to oppose regulating a class of chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used in refrigeration, car air conditioning and aerosols. Replacement chemicals raise problems for companies, he wrote, and he cautioned that they may be dangerous.

“Some large U.S. companies like Coca-Cola have to make long-term investment decisions relating to their refrigerated beverage machines,” Hart said. “There are all sorts of technical issues that arise when you get rid of HFCs. One is consumer safety. I kept hearing that the replacement technology had some problems — exploding vending machines. Thoughts?”

The same month, Hart also put forward three candidates suggested by Dennis Treacy, president of Smithfield Foundation, the pork company’s philanthropic arm, for the prestigious EPA Science Advisory Board. The candidates’ names were redacted in the emails released by the EPA.

He also forwarded a hiring recommendation from Treacy about another potential job candidate. “As a reminder,” Hart told Jackson that the candidate “is African-American and Republican.” Jackson replied that he had met him and liked him.

The emails do not specify a position being applied for, and Wilcox said the individual was not hired.

Hart also discussed with Jackson the Paris Agreement and in May 2017 advised an executive at HSBC to speak to Jackson about the climate treaty’s fate, the emails show. (President Donald Trump has vowed to withdraw the United States from the Paris accord.)

And in November, Hart offered to encourage a senator to approve an EPA nominee. In that exchange, Hart emailed Jackson to tell him that he would be dining with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and pasted a copy of an article questioning whether the Senate would confirm Michael L. Dourson to lead the EPA’s chemical safety office.

“Having dinner with Burr tonight — should I try to move him or want to just give up?” Dourson eventually withdrew his name from consideration for the post. Burr’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the emails showed an inappropriate relationship between Pruitt and his landlords. “We now have concrete evidence that Scott Pruitt offered to use taxpayer resources to do favors for the lobbyist who gave him a sweetheart deal on a D.C. condo,” he said.

The federal government’s Standards of Ethical Conduct guidelines urge agency officials to “avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or the ethical standards.”

Both Hart and Jackson are from Oklahoma, and a number of the exchanges suggest a friendly relationship that bridges the personal and professional. Last September, Hart joked that Jackson’s former boss, conservative Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, had voted to raise the nation’s debt limit. “This exposes you as a liberal,” Hart teased Jackson, before adding, “We need to smoke a cigar soon.”

“Don’t tell anyone my secret,” Jackson replied.