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Pruitt allegedly worked with his staff to scrub controversial meetings from official calendar

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Washington, July 5, 2018 | comments
Think Progress

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt reportedly worked with his staff to to conceal meetings with fossil fuel industry executives, lobbyists, and a senior Roman Catholic leader under investigation for child abuse, according to a former EPA official. Falsifying or concealing records is a federal offence.

EPA staffers met in Pruitt’s office to “scrub” details from Pruitt’s official calendar records because they might “look bad,” according to Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, who attended the meetings.

CNN reported late Monday that it compared Pruitt’s public calendar with internal EPA schedules and emails. The news organization found that more than two dozen meetings, events, or calls were omitted from Pruitt’s public calendar.

Pruitt has been plagued by scandal after scandal over the past six months. But President Trump has refused to fire the EPA administrator.

Pruitt is extremely popular among political conservatives who admire the EPA chief’s willingness to engage in questionable conduct as long as it helps him roll back environmental regulations at the agency. The Republican-controlled Congress has declined to investigate potential crimes committed by the EPA chief.

Yet, Pruitt is currently facing at least 18 federal investigations and reviews into his conduct as EPA administrator.

Democratic lawmakers believe that Pruitt may have broken the law under the Federal Records Act for allegedly falsifying or concealing federal records. “In addition to being a national embarrassment, Scott Pruitt likely committed one or more felonies,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) wrote in a tweet Tuesday morning about the reports of the EPA concealing Pruitt’s meetings.

The EPA had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.

Chmielewski told CNN that certain meetings were intentionally removed from Pruitt’s calendar after they occurred, such as meetings in June 2017 between Pruitt and Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s third-highest-ranking official who was charged weeks later with multiple historical charges of sexual offenses. Pell has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Pell is well-known among climate-denier groups for dismissing the science linking greenhouse gas emissions with climate change.

“We had at one point three different schedules. One of them was one that no one else saw except three or four of us,” Chmielewski told CNN. “It was a secret… and they would decide what to nix from the public calendar.”

The EPA previously said Pruitt was unaware that Pell would be attending the dinner in Italy. Chmielewski told CNN that is not true. “All of our time at the Vatican was spent with Cardinal Pell. Cardinal Pell was basically our host. I mean, that was who we were going to meet with,” Chmielewski said.

Scott and Pell reportedly discussed an April 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed by New York University professor Steven Koonin. The op-ed promoted the idea of setting up opposing teams to debate the science behind climate change.

The debate plan caught Pruitt’s attention and inspired him to look into the possibility of televising them as a debate. White House chief of staff John Kelly, however, reportedly instructed Pruitt not to stage the public debates challenging climate change science.

Pruitt had two additional meetings with Pell that have not been previously reported. One was a lunch with Pell. The other was part of a Vatican tour, according to CNN.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), one of Congress’s leading watchdogs of Pruitt’s EPA, stated in a tweet sent late Monday that “scrubbing his official calendar — falsifying records — to conceal meetings with oil barons, lobbyists, and industry executives (not to mention a Cardinal charged with abusing children) and hide how he is making EPA policy from the public = illegal.”

Lawmakers have already issued calls for criminal investigations into Pruitt’s conduct, including getting his aides to help him with personal errands and family matters. Top Democratic lawmakers, for example, contend Pruitt may have broken federal law when he asked one of his top aides to hunt down an “old mattress” from the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

New information is coming out about how Pruitt asked his aides to do nonofficial work for him. The EPA’s former associate administrator for the Office of Policy, Samantha Dravis, reportedly spoke to congressional investigators last week. She informed them that Pruitt asked her to contact the Republican Attorneys General Association — a group Pruitt had once led and Dravis had worked for before coming to the EPA — as part of the job search for his wife.

Dravis told the investigators that Pruitt wanted help finding his wife a job with an annual salary of more than $200,000, the Washington Post reported Monday.

Pruitt also reportedly routinely asked his assistants to put his hotel reservations on their personal credit cards rather than his own. According to Chmielewski, former Pruitt aide Sydney Hupp was stuck with a bill of about $600 for a booking she had made for the administrator’s family during the presidential transition in early 2017 after Pruitt failed to reimburse her for the cost.

As the former director for the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, pointed out on twitter, the federal regulations “mandates use of a [government] travel card” and “prohibits misuse of official position (as in ordering a subordinate to use her personal credit for your travel).” 

The allegations of secret meetings go beyond concealing the dinner with Pell. Pruitt also attended a dinner at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on April 26, 2017 hosted by Joseph Craft, chief executive of major coal producer Alliance Resources Partners. The dinner also did not appear on Pruitt’s public EPA schedule.

Craft donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration and has advocated for the rollback of environmental regulations on the coal industry, CNN reported.

“These secret calendars and testimony from EPA staff expose a deeply rooted culture of corruption surrounding Scott Pruitt and his dealings in essentially every aspect of his job,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said Tuesday in a statement. “Pruitt is a danger to taxpayers and an embarrassment to this administration.”

While most conservatives still strongly support Pruitt, right-wing pundit Laura Ingraham has recently called for the EPA chief’s resignation. On her radio show, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), one of Pruitt’s biggest supporters in Congress, said all of the scandals are upsetting him and that something needs to change at the EPA. “One of those alternatives would be for him to leave that job,” the Oklahoma senator said.

A few days later, Inhofe backtracked on his comments, saying he was a “little embarrassed” to have doubted Pruitt, one of his longtime friends from Oklahoma. Many of Pruitt’s lapses were minor and excusable given his lack of experience in Washington, Inhofe said June 20.

Pruitt is scheduled to testify in August in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), announced last month. “The hearing will give senators the opportunity to ask important questions and hear about the work being done at the agency,” Barrasso said in a statement June 19.

 
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