As corruption allegations swirl around Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, numerous agency emails that were sued into the open by ecologists show the agency is far more concerned with protecting the environment around Pruitt himself than they are with the environment at large.
The emails, which were obtained under public records requests by the Sierra Club, detail the lengths to which Pruitt has gone to insulate the agency’s decisions from public scrutiny, as well as provide Pruitt himself with lavish travel at the expense of US taxpayers.
The new revelations are the latest in a string of ethical scandals that have engulfed Pruitt, who was appointed by Trump at the beginning of his administration to swing a wrecking ball at the environmental achievements of the Obama era.
As he has attempted to carry that mission out, he has been called out by the press for spending exorbitant sums on a sound-proof phone booth in his office, private security details and bulletproof limousines, assembling a wish-list of foreign countries he would like to visit undercover of his official capacities, and handing out raises to staff who help him cover this up.
Much of this has come to light thanks to high-profile resignations from his agency, and a steady march of disgruntled former employees have offered testimony to congressional inquiries into their former bosses questionable behavior.
But the emails – which represent some 10,000 documents brought into the open by the Sierra Club’s Freedom of Information lawsuit – show that the agency’s close control of Pruitt’s events is driven more by a desire to avoid tough questions about his politics from the public than by concerns about security, contradicting Pruitt’s longstanding defense of his secretiveness.
Time and again, the files show, agency decisions turn on limiting advance public knowledge of Pruitt’s appearances in order 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 even Pruitt’s corporate hosts expressed confusion about the trip.
“The security aspect is smoke and mirrors,” Kevin Chmielewski Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations told The New York Times. Chmielewski is one among several former EPA officials who were fired or resigned 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.”
Getting Pruitt on these trips is expensive. The documents show that In a two-day period last July, for example, Pruitt spent $4,443 for separate round-trips to Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia for visits that included tours of a power plant and a farm. On at least four occasions, he spent between $2,000 and $2,600 on first-class airfare to official meetings or tours near Tulsa, Oklahoma where he lives. Ordinarily, airline tickets like these would cost less than $400.
Other emails show extensive efforts by Pruitt’s staff to shield him from public questioning. On one occasion, Pruitt was to attend a town hall style meeting with cattle farmers in Iowa, but when the Agency learned those in attendance would be able to ask anything they wanted, the officials sought to script the questions instead.
“My sincere apologies,” EPA official Millan Hupp wrote to the farmer 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 Mr. Pruitt, including: “What has it been like to work with President Trump?”
All politicians are attuned to image-building, of course, and employ staffs whose job is to control the environments in which they appear. But Pruitt, the emails show, 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 Trump’s cabinet, Pruitt 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.
For the even in Iowa, the agency’s efforts to shield Pruitt from questions prevailed, and moderators at the event asked only questions that had been written by the EPA in advance.
The emails also 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 byPruitt 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.
Despite these coordinated efforts to keep Pruitt from unpleasant questions, his mission to undo many of the signature environmental achievements of the Obama administration have failed. This is due in part to the legal durability of many of these initiatives, but the incompetence of Pruitt and his staff have contributed to this failure. As the cloud of ethics violations – many of which break the law – continue to gather around Pruitt, there is virtually no sign from Trump’s White House that his job may be in jeopardy.