Political News

Pruitt’s Dinner With Cardinal Accused of Abuse Was Kept Off Public Schedule

Posted May 11, 2018 9:53 p.m. EDT
Updated May 11, 2018 9:56 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, dined last year in Rome with Cardinal George Pell, a prominent climate-science denialist and Vatican leader who was also facing sexual abuse allegations. The EPA later released official descriptions of the dinner that intentionally did not mention the cardinal’s presence, according to three current and former EPA officials.

Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, said in an interview that top political appointees at the agency feared that the meeting would reflect poorly on Pruitt if it were made public. Twenty days after the dinner, authorities in Australia charged Pell with sexual assault; he has denied the charges.

“It was a no-brainer,” Chmielewski said of the decision to keep Pell’s participation quiet. His account was confirmed by two people who were familiar with the handling of the trip, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern over retribution.

On Friday, Jahan Wilcox, an EPA spokesman, issued a statement confirming the June 9 meal took place while emphasizing that it “was not a private one-on-one dinner” and saying that Pruitt wasn’t aware of the allegations against Pell. He also said the EPA had no knowledge that the cardinal would be attending the dinner.

However, emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that as early as May 12, Pruitt’s scheduler, Millan Hupp, was working on plans for Pruitt to meet with Pell. “Dinner with Cardinal Pell and others,” an email says, proposing the dinner for June 7 and adding, “Note: His 76th birthday is tomorrow.”

The dinner Pell attended ultimately took place June 9 at La Terrazza, a restaurant in the five-star Hotel Eden overlooking Rome.

Pruitt’s trip was an official EPA visit tied to the G-7 summit in Bologna. Pruitt’s frequent first-class travel, including to Italy, is under investigation by the EPA’s inspector general and the House Oversight Committee.

An internal debate over whether to proceed with any meeting with Pell had begun well before Pruitt left for Italy, according to three current and former agency officials. Mark Kasman, a career EPA official who helps supervise international affairs at the agency, found media reports describing the allegations against Pell and approached Chmielewski with them, Chmielewski said, urging the agency to cancel any such meetings.

Pell has been under investigation in connection with sexual abuse allegations since 2016.

Kasman, reached in Morocco where he was attending a meeting with other U.S. government officials, referred questions to the agency’s Office of Public Affairs.

Pell’s presence at the dinner was initially revealed in EPA emails obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, this week. “I am at dinner with Cardinal Pell and Mr. Pruitt,” Samantha Dravis, Pruitt’s former policy chief, wrote the evening of the dinner to another Vatican official.

Dravis, reached Friday, said she did not know about the investigation into Pell at the time of the dinner and did not participate in any conversations or deliberations about whether the cardinal’s name should be left off the schedule.

At the dinner, Pruitt and Pell discussed a plan of Pruitt’s to stage public debates challenging the established science of climate change, the email shows.

The emails also show that much of Pruitt’s time in Rome was spent attending events recommended or arranged by Leonard A. Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, a conservative organization that promotes limits on federal regulations. The May emails suggest that Leo was involved in planning for a dinner.

Leo did not respond to a request for comment.

Chmielewski said that a move to keep Pell off official schedules came after Pell was charged on June 29. Some senior members of the agency’s leadership team agreed that it was best not to list Pell’s name in any official schedule the agency would release, according to Chmielewski and a second agency official. Chmielewski said that he personally shared that view.

At least four versions of Pruitt’s formal and detailed schedules for his week in Italy — one posted online, and three released under the Freedom of Information Act — have been obtained by The New York Times. Two of them list individual attendees at the dinner, including Pruitt and his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson. None include Pell’s name.

Chmielewski joined the EPA in 2017 after working on Republican presidential campaigns. Earlier this year, he said, he was fired from the agency for challenging Pruitt’s spending decisions. Pruitt faces 11 investigations into his spending and management practices at the agency. Pruitt testified to Congress recently that Chmielewski resigned.

Jackson said that neither he nor the administrator was informed about the investigation into Pell before the trip. He also said discussions about leaving Pell’s name off the schedules never took place.

“The only ever conversation that happened was, ‘Hey, these schedules change so quickly that we need to be really diligent about keeping the records of what actually happened,'” Jackson said. He added that he did not know why Pell’s name did not appear on official schedules. “Documents change every five minutes, to be entirely candid with you,” he said.