Pruitt bars AP, CNN from EPA summit on contaminants, guards push reporter out of building

The Environmental Protection Agency barred The Associated Press and CNN from a national summit on harmful water contaminants on Tuesday — and guards forcibly shoved a female reporter out of the building.

The EPA blocked the media organizations, along with the environmental-focused E&E News, from attending the meeting in Washington, convened by EPA chief Scott Pruitt.

Guards barred an AP reporter from passing through a security checkpoint inside the building.

When the reporter, Ellen Knickmeyer, asked to speak to an EPA public-affairs person, the security guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building. She said she was not injured and was later permitted to attend the meeting.

“The Environmental Protection Agency’s selective barring of news organizations, including the AP, from covering today’s meeting is alarming and a direct threat to the public’s right to know about what is happening inside their government,” said AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee.

“It is particularly distressing that any journalist trying to cover an event in the public interest would be forcibly removed,” Buzbee added.

CNN said in a statement that its reporter also was turned away from covering the event “after multiple attempts to attend.”

“We understand the importance of an open and free press and we hope the EPA does, too,” CNN said, according to the AP.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told the barred organizations they were not invited and there was no space for them, but gave no indication of why they specifically were barred.

“This was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity, which reporters were aware of prior to the event,” Wilcox told NBC News. “We were able to accommodate 10 reporters, provided a livestream for those we could not accommodate and were unaware of the individual situation that has been reported.”

The reporter threatened “negative coverage” if she couldn’t get in, Wilcox alleged.

Some media that had been permitted to attend said that there appeared to be a handful of open seats for the press in the room despite claims that there was no room left.

A reporter for E&E News tweeted about being shut out by the EPA.

Amid criticism for barring the media outlets, Wilcox announced later that the afternoon session of the meeting would be open to all press.

Following that decision, the AP said, “We are pleased that the EPA has reconsidered its decision and will now allow AP to attend the remainder of today’s meeting. The AP looks forward to informing the public of the important discussions at the water contaminants summit this afternoon.”

Pruitt spoke Tuesday as he opened a hearing on the contaminants, known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl. The chemicals were used in items like nonstick coating and firefighting foam and have contaminated some water systems nationwide. The compounds are linked to developmental defects and other health problems.

Pruitt has faced criticism in recent weeks over emails showing the EPA sought to intervene in a critical study on the contaminants.

Convening Tuesday’s session, Pruitt is pledging to work on establishing a maximum allowable level for the chemicals in drinking water.

Representatives of states, tribes, the chemical industry, environmental groups and others attended the session.

[NBC News]

Scott Pruitt and a crew of EPA aides spent four days in Morocco promoting natural gas

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt returned Wednesday from a trip to Morocco, where he talked with officials about their interest in importing natural gas as well as other areas of “continued cooperation” between the two countries.

The EPA disclosed the trip late Tuesday, issuing a media release that included photos and a statement from Pruitt saying that the visit “allowed us to directly convey our priorities and best practices with Moroccan leaders.”

“We are committed to working closely with countries like Morocco to enhance environmental stewardship around the world,” Pruitt said.

The purpose of the trip sparked questions from environmental groups, Democratic lawmakers and some industry experts, who noted that EPA plays no formal role in overseeing natural gas exports. Such activities are overseen primarily by the Energy Department and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Pruitt took along seven aides and an undisclosed number of staff from his protective detail. The group included four political aides, including Samantha Dravis, associate administrator of the Office of Policy, and senior advisers Sarah Greenwalt and Lincoln Ferguson, as well as one career official, Jane Nishida, principal deputy assistant administrator of the Office of International and Tribal Affairs. Pruitt’s head of security determines how many advance staffers travel on any given trip, EPA officials said, and in this instance it was two.

At the request of Senate Democrats, the EPA inspector general is looking into Pruitt’s use of military and private flights, as well as his frequent visits to his home state of Oklahoma during his first few months on the job.

“It seems strange that Administrator Pruitt would prioritize a trip to Morocco to discuss natural gas exports while there is no shortage of more pressing issues here in the U.S. that actually fall within the jurisdiction of the agency he leads,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “I presume Mr. Pruitt is aware his agency’s inspector general is conducting an investigation into his questionable travel, which makes his decision to take this trip an odd choice at best.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement that Pruitt “acts like he is a globe-trotting salesman for the fossil fuel industry who can make taxpayers foot the bill.”

Pruitt traveled in business class for three flights, according to an individual who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an internal agency matter, and in economy class for two flights. Asked about the travel arrangements, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox replied in an email, “Due to concerns from our security team, Administrator Pruitt was granted a waiver by EPA’s Chief Financial Officer to fly business-class.”

Wilcox said he could not provide the trip’s total cost because the travelers’ arrangements were booked through their respective departments.

Pruitt met with three top Moroccan officials, according to the agency statement, including the minister of energy, mines and sustainable development; the minister of justice and liberties; and the secretary of state to the minister of foreign affairs. Wilcox said Pruitt “discussed our bilateral free trade agreement, solid waste response, disaster relief and communications with top Moroccan officials.”

His visit came shortly after the EPA held a workshop in Rabat about solid waste management, public participation and crisis communication.

Morocco, the only African country with which the United States has a free-trade agreement, is a signatory to the 2015 Paris climate agreement and has collaborated in the past with U.S. officials on its push to expand domestic solar energy production. During the trip, Moroccan officials took Pruitt on a tour of the IRESEN Green Energy Park, which the EPA said showed the administrator “firsthand the work being done to promote environmental innovation, including solar energy across Morocco.”

[Washington Post]

Trump’s EPA quietly revamps rules for air pollution

The Trump administration has quietly reshaped enforcement of air pollution standards in recent months through a series of regulatory memos.

The memos are fulfilling the top wishes of industry, which has long called for changes to how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the nation’s factories, plants and other facilities. The EPA is now allowing certain facilities to be subject to less-stringent regulations and is letting companies use friendlier math in calculating their expected emissions.

Environmentalists and public health advocates say the memos could greatly increase levels of air pollutants like mercury, benzene and nitrogen oxides. They accuse the EPA of avoiding the transparency and public input requirements that regulatory changes usually go through.

“All of these, individually and taken together, will result in more air pollution and less enforcement of the Clean Air Act,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.

“These were radical departures of current law when they were proposed a decade ago and they’re just as radical today,” he said, referring to the Bush-era efforts, some of which were unsuccessful, to make changes to EPA air programs.

But for the EPA and its supporters, the memos simply bring the agency back to what the relevant laws and regulations are meant to be.

“They address specific concerns that people have had for years, and just make it much simpler for people to comply — especially for existing [facilities] — to make sure they can maintain their plants and replace worn-out components and those types of things, without the threat of enforcement litigation,” said Jeff Holmstead, a former head of the EPA’s air pollution office under the George W. Bush administration who now represents regulated companies at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell.

Bill Wehrum, head of the air office under EPA chief Scott Pruitt, wrote two of the three EPA memos. He recused himself from the third memo, which Pruitt wrote.

The first memo, issued in December, states that the EPA will no longer “second guess” companies’ calculations of their expected pollution output after certain big projects under what is known as New Source Review. Under that program, the EPA reviews the changes made to a facility to decide whether they need to go through the same process as if the facility were newly built.

The December memo effectively means the EPA will usually not take action against a company for its calculations if they turn out to be wrong.

The second memo, issued in January, repeals a Clinton-era policy known as “once in, always in.” Under the previous policy, facilities could never be considered “minor” sources of hazardous pollution if they were already considered “major” sources, and subject to much stricter rules.

Now, facilities can be regulated as “minor” if their emissions drop enough.

The third memo allows companies to use a procedure known as “project netting” when applying for permits for major projects under the New Source Review program. That means companies can use a more industry-friendly emissions calculation when they argue that a particular project would reduce emissions.

President Trump added to the memos last week, signing one himself that formally asks the EPA to use more industry-friendly practices in enforcing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards program, a key Clean Air Act program for air quality nationwide.

John Walke, director for clean air at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA is working to implement the policies the Bush administration failed to finish.

“I think Mr. Wehrum has decided this is likely a one-term administration and he’s going to devote his full resources to rolling back clean air, climate and public health protections in the time available to him,” Walke said.

“The most expedient and hasty way to accomplish those rollbacks is through the regular guidance documents that we have seen so far from EPA,” he said. “Rulemakings take time, they require public notice and input and hearings, and Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Pruitt plainly have no patience for those tedious fodders.”

Walke said that, taken together, the memos could allow polluting facilities to greatly increase their emissions.

The EPA didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The focus among the memos for environmental and health advocates is the one repealing the “once in, always in” policy, and letting “major” pollution sources reduce their emissions and be regulated as “minor” ones.

A coalition of environmental groups sued the EPA to stop the policy change, arguing that it should have gone through the full regulatory process, including analysis of its environmental impact and an opportunity for public comment. Democratic states joined in with their own lawsuit.

“Instead of prioritizing the health of hard-working Americans, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wants to let major polluters off the hook. That is unconscionable, and it is illegal,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D).

“If the ‘Once In, Always In’ policy is rescinded, children in California and around the country — particularly those who must live near the polluting plant or factory — may grow up in an environment with tons of additional hazardous pollutants in the air they breathe. California will not allow that to happen,” Becerra said.

Two environmental groups opposed to the EPA’s move have put out recent analyses of the change, focused on specific areas of the country.

The Environmental Integrity Project looked at 12 industrial plants in the Midwest and concluded they could increase their pollution to 540,000 pounds annually, a fourfold growth.

The Environmental Defense Fund looked at the Houston area, and said that 18 facilities there could increase their emissions to 900,000 pounds a year, two and a half times current levels.

Holmstead said opponents of the Trump administration’s policy are unlikely to prevail. The Supreme Court ruled in the 2015 Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association case that federal agencies can repeal policy memos with other policy memos and don’t have to go through the full regulatory process to do so.

“I think the environmental groups are going to have a real uphill battle trying to get through court that this is somehow improper,” he said. “That really does fly in the face of the Perez decision.”

As for the increase in emissions, Holmstead said environmentalists are wrong. In many cases, the new policies will allow facilities to carry out projects that reduce emissions, or simply operate under a lower paperwork burden.

“They have yet to come up with any real-world examples of how that might happen,” Holmstead said of the scenarios in which pollution might increase. “These reforms are not going to lead to pollution increases.

“I don’t think that there will be a meaningful impact one way or another.”

[The Hill]

Pruitt met with lobbyist whose wife rented him condo

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt met with the lobbyist whose wife rented him a $50-a-night condo in Washington, D.C.

J. Steven Hart, a lobbyist for Williams & Jensen, set up the meeting with Pruitt on behalf of executive associated with Smithfield Foods, a large pork producer.

On Friday, The Hill reported that Hart had reached out to the EPA on behalf of a client, Smithfield Foods, contradicting Hart’s previous claims that he had not lobbied Pruitt’s agency last year or in 2018. Hart announced Saturday that he is also stepping down from the firm.

On Saturday, Ryan Williams, a spokesman for Hart, confirmed to The Hill that Hart in fact met personally with Pruitt in 2017 alongside Smithfield Foods’s former vice president Dennis Treacy.

The personal meeting was first reported by The New York Times.

Both Hart and Smithfield Food, however, deny that the meeting was to lobby on behalf of the company. A spokesperson for Smithfield Foods said that Hart’s work was instead a personal action on behalf of Treacy, the Times reported.

Both men claim the meeting was about the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which they are members of. The group works to improve water quality in the bay.

Hart says his work was not on behalf of Smithfield Foods and that he was not compensated for his work.

Pruitt has faced scrutiny in recent days for a number of controversies raising ethics questions, including his rental of a condo from Hart’s wife. He paid $50 a night and only paid for nights he stayed in the unit.

[The Hill]

EPA removes staffer who OK’d report on Pruitt’s security

EPA removed a career staffer Tuesday who approved an internal report that undermined Administrator Scott Pruitt’s claims that he needed around-the-clock bodyguards and other expensive security protection, according to two former agency employees familiar with the situation.

Mario Caraballo was the deputy associate administrator of EPA’s Office of Homeland Security, which in February concluded that an earlier assessment failed to identify credible direct threats against the administrator that would justify his heavy security spending.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) wrote to Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) on Tuesday requesting oversight hearings and quoting the report, making public its doubts about the need for the heightened security.

One source with direct knowledge of Caraballo’s dismissal said the agency claimed he was let go because of a personnel issue from a previous military job nearly a decade ago that had been resolved then and already been reviewed by EPA several years ago. That source said senior officials also were not happy with the report from Caraballo’s office.

“They’re trying right now to just keep pressure on the wound,” the source said. “They’re trying to find out where these leaks are coming from … They’re in full panic mode right now.”

EPA Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Donna Vizian said the agency would not comment on personnel matters. But she added that today’s action “was based on a recommendation by the Office of Administration and Resources Management. I am not aware of any connection between the personnel matter and the document mentioned in media reports.”

A career EPA staffer who has worked with Caraballo described him as a “standout manager,” and a “veteran and dedicated public servant and intelligence official to boot.”

The source predicted Caraballo’s dismissal would stiffen the resolve of Pruitt’s critics within the agency.

“This isn’t going to frighten staff, this is going to embolden us to leak more to get these criminals out,” the employee said Tuesday. “They need to know we’re not intimidated and we’re going to blow the whistle on anything even borderline questionable.”

In their letter to Barrasso, the two Senate Democrats said the records from the EPA, Secret Service and a terrorism task force fail to justify Pruitt’s use of the multimillion-dollar security detail.

Instead, according to the internal EPA memo, the “threats” include protesters attempting to disrupt one of Pruitt’s closed-door speeches, a letter from a prisoner, and a postcard that included the greeting: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL!!! We are watching you,” Carper and Whitehouse wrote to Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

The two Democrats demanded oversight hearings into Pruitt’s security spending, citing an internal EPA review, Secret Service threat assessments and a Joint Terrorism Task Force report.

But Barrasso rejected their request, while bashing the two Democrats for releasing “sensitive information.”

“I am deeply troubled that members of the committee would publicly release lawenforcement sensitive information regarding the safety and security of a cabinet member and his family,” Barrasso said in a statement. “This letter selectively quotes non-public documents.”

Barrasso added that “any reasonable reading” of those documents supported a conclusion that Pruitt faced a “variety of direct death threats.”

To the contrary, Carper and Whitehouse said the Secret Service identified no “reports of behaviors of interest” against Pruitt, and internal EPA reviews dispute “the administrator’s claims that the nature of the threats against him justify his expenditures.”

Pruitt has drawn widespread scrutiny for demanding a round-the-clock security detail, flying first-class to limit contact with threatening passengers, and having a soundproof booth installed in his office, among other steps — all of which offered far greater protection and privacy than his predecessors received. The Associated Press, citing an unnamed EPA official, said last week Pruitt’s “total security costs approached $3 million when pay is added to travel expenses.”

EPA has said Pruitt has experienced a sharp increase in threats compared with his immediate predecessor, Obama-era Administrator Gina McCarthy. Among specific incidents, the agency said one person had approached Pruitt in the Atlanta airport while yelling, “Scott Pruitt, you’re f—ing up the environment.”

In one of the nonpublic documents Carper and Whitehouse cited, the EPA Office of Homeland Security‘s intelligence team concluded that an earlier threat assessment prepared by Pruitt’s security team DOES NOT employ sound analysis or articulate relevant ‘threat specific’ information appropriate to draw any resource or level of threat conclusions regarding the protection posture for the administrator,” according to a section of the Feb. 14 memo reproduced in the senators’ letter (emphasis included). The memo concluded that EPA intelligence officials had “not identified any specific credible direct threat to the EPA administrator,” according to the letter.

None of the incidents listed concern air travel, according to the letter.

The senators said the records don’t match public statements from EPA and President Donald Trump, who tweeted Saturday that Pruitt’s expenses are justified.

One view is “that certain factions within EPA have justified the exorbitant taxpayer spending incurred by the administrator’s first-class travel and large entourage of security personnel through unsubstantiated claims about threats to his security, either at the direction of the administrator himself or others in the agency,” the senators said.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said Tuesday that “Scott Pruitt has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats against him and these threat assessments are conducted within [Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance] using information collected from the [Protective Service Detail], EPA’s Office of Homeland Security, and Inspector General.“ He pointed to interviews with EPA’s inspector general office discussing an increase in threats compared to the previous administrator’s tenure.

[Politico]

Former staffer: EPA fired him for refusing to OK first-class flight

A former top EPA staffer has told Democratic lawmakers that the agency fired him after he refused to retroactively approve the first-class travel of one of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s closest aides, according to letters made public Thursday.

The dismissed political appointee, Kevin Chmielewski, also alleged that Pruitt flouted price limits on hotel stays and office decor, put an aide to work house-hunting for him, arranged taxpayer-funded trips to his native Oklahoma and other destinations just because he wanted to travel there and lied last week when he denied knowing about backdoor raises the agency had granted to two of his top aides, the lawmakers said Thursday in a letter to the agency.

In addition, Chmielewski detailed allegations of lavish spending on Pruitt’s personal security and a possible conflict of interest involving his top bodyguard, as well a $100,000-per-month private jet rental that he says EPA looked into at Pruitt’s direction. He also said, as POLITICO reported last week, that Pruitt was frequently late in paying the $50-a-night rent on his lobbyist-owned Capitol Hill condo last year.

The lawmakers, including Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), separately wrote to President Donald Trump and urged him to rethink his public support for the embattled EPA chief.

“… [I]t appears you may not have received all the facts surrounding Administrator Pruitt’s spending, security arrangements, travel, living arrangements, and personnel actions, among other things,” they wrote.

Carper and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) separately asked EPA’s inspector general on Thursday to look into Pruitt’s alleged use of four different email accounts at EPA, and whether federal record-keeping laws were followed.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox declined to specifically dispute the allegations from Chmielewski outlined in the letter, saying the agency would respond to the lawmakers “through the proper channel.” When Chmielewski’s dismissal was first reported last week, Wilcox called him one of “a group of disgruntled employees who have either been dismissed or reassigned.”

Chmielewski, a former Trump campaign staffer, was EPA’s deputy chief of staff for operations and handled many of Pruitt’s travel and logistics coordination. He has emerged as the best-known internal agency critic of Pruitt’s lavish spending and other practices, which have led lawmakers of both parties — and key White House aides — to push for the administrator’s firing.

Among his specific charges, Chmielewski told the lawmakers this week that Pruitt had requested that his aide Samantha Dravis, the head of EPA’s Office of Policy, join him in first class on a return flight from Morocco in December, where Pruitt had gone to promote U.S. natural gas.

Chmielewski told the lawmakers he refused to sign paperwork justifying Dravis’ first-class travel “because it violated federal travel regulations,” the Democrats wrote. He said another EPA staffer eventually signed off on the travel retroactively.

Chmielewski said his refusal to bless Dravis’ upgraded travel “appears to him to have been the final straw that caused you to remove him,” the lawmakers wrote to Pruitt. Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, subsequently informed Chmielewski that Pruitt “wished to fire or reassign him,” they wrote.

Dravis disputed Chmielewski’s allegations, telling POLITICO that she never spoke with him about the upgrade approval, that she did not request the upgrade and that it was not approved retroactively. Dravis said she flew coach for three of the four legs of the trip, and was upgraded to business class for one of them in keeping with federal regulations about travel exceeding 14 hours.

Democrats and environmental groups have questioned the entire purpose of the Morocco trip, noting that EPA’s mission doesn’t include promoting U.S. natural gas exports. Energy Secretary Rick Perry declined to weigh in on that issue at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Thursday, saying it would be “a little inappropriate for me to be making a public or private observation” about whether Pruitt’s trip was justified.

Chmielewski also disputed Pruitt’s statement last week to Fox News that he did not know about raises that two of his aides, who had accompanied him to EPA from Oklahoma, received despite the White House’s disapproval. Pruitt told Fox that the raises were entirely carried out by unidentified staffers, and that he was correcting the matter after learning of it.

But Chmielewski said the raises were “100% Pruitt himself,” according to a quote included in the Democrats’ letter.

Chmielewski told the lawmakers that his dismissal came in February when the head of Pruitt’s security detail, Nino Perrotta, asked him to give up his government credentials when he returned to the agency after an unrelated overseas trip with Vice President Mike Pence.

According to the letter, Jackson told Chmielewski that Pruitt wanted him removed and one of the Oklahoma aides, Millan Hupp, promoted to his job and pay scale. Chmielewski said the White House would not approve of that arrangement, but that he later was removed and Hupp received the promotion and pay raise via special hiring authority in the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Other allegations made by Chmielewski, according to the letters, include:

— Pruitt’s security detail has purchased bulletproof vests, weapons and biometric locks and new SUVs to transport Pruitt, as opposed to getting vehicles via the General Services Administration. Chmielewski also alleges EPA has awarded security contracts to at least one person who works at the private security firm run by Perrotta.

— Pruitt had Hupp search for housing during work hours.

— Pruitt spent more than the $5,000 legal limit to redecorate his office.

— EPA staff, at Pruitt’s direction, considered a $100,000-per month private jet rental for the administrator. Chmielewski “claimed he successfully prevented this from occurring, as it would have been far in excess of the total travel budget of the office,” the Democrats wrote.

— Pruitt allegedly sought to travel to certain destinations and would ask EPA staff to find official business there to justify the taxpayer-funded trips. Chmielewski also says Pruitt told staff to find official reasons for him to be in or near Oklahoma to spend long weekends at home there.

— Pruitt “frequently” stayed in pricey hotels that exceeded allowable per diem spending, and that while Pruitt was reimbursed even when costs went over a 300 percent cap for exceptional circumstances, his bodyguards sometimes were not.

— Pruitt declined to plan to stay at hotels recommended by U.S. embassies during two planned international trips, choosing instead “more expensive hotels with fewer standard security resources.”

“The new information provided by Mr. Chmielewski, if accurate, leaves us certain that your leadership at EPA has been fraught with numerous and repeated unethical and potentially illegal actions on a wide range of consequential matters that you and some members of your staff directed,” the lawmakers wrote to Pruitt in asking for more documents.

Besides Carper and Whitehouse, the letters were signed by Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.).

[Politico]

EPA officials demoted, removed after voicing complaints about Scott Pruitt

At least five officials at the Environmental Protection Agency were demoted, removed, reassigned, put on leave or asked for new jobs after voicing concerns about embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the New York Times reported Thursday.

Pruitt is in hot water after dominating the news cycle this week with reports that he lived in a condo belonging to the wife of a lobbyist, and that two of his top aides received hefty raises. Those stories follow others from earlier this year about Pruitt’s expensive travel. CBS News’ Julianna Goldman also reported Thursday that the agent in charge of Pruitt’s security detail was reassigned shortly after objecting to Pruitt’s desire to use sirens and lights when there was traffic, and he was late to a business meeting.

The New York Times reported that some EPA officials objected to office furniture spending, first-class travel, and additional security coverage — including a 20-person protective detail. One of the officials, political appointee Kevin Chmielewski, was placed on administrative leave without pay, the Times reported, citing two people familiar with the situation. Chmielewski, the Times reported, had voiced some of his concerns about Pruitt to the White House’s presidential personnel office.

Two other officials, career officials Reginald Allen and Eric Weese, were placed in jobs where they had less authority in spending decisions and interaction with the administrator when they expressed their concerns, the Times reported. And another career official, John Reeder, took a position with American University after the EPA told him to take a new job, according to the Times.

A spokesman for the EPA disputed the Times’ version of events.

“This is a group of disgruntled employees who have either been dismissed or reassigned,” said EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox.

Wilcox also responded to a New York Times story claiming Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, is considering leaving.

“EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, is committed to advancing President Trump’s agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship and continues to do so under Administrator Pruitt’s leadership,” Wilcox said.

Stories about Pruitt have made headlines since last week, when ABC News first reported Pruitt last year lived in a condo belonging to the wife of a Washington lobbyist. As CBS News has reported, the condo cost Pruitt $50 a night, and he only paid for nights when he was in town. Pruitt has insisted the arrangement was signed off on by an ethics official. In an interview with Fox News’ Ed Henry Thursday night, Pruitt also addressed a report from The Atlantic that two staff members received hefty salary increases. Pruitt blamed whoever made that decision to give the raises, which he said he knew nothing about at the time, and said he had fixed the problem.

“I’m fixing the problem,” Pruitt told Henry.

An EPA spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Trump, at least publicly, is standing by Pruitt. The White House is reviewing Pruitt’s actions.

On Air Force One heading from West Virginia to Washington, D.C., Thursday, Mr. Trump called Pruitt a “good man.”

“I have to look at them,” Mr. Trump said of the claims against Pruitt. “…I’ll make that determination. But he’s a good man, he’s done a terrific job. But I’ll take a look at it.”

[CBS News]

EPA: ‘Zero Records’ of Any Death Threats Against Scott Pruitt, Despite Trump Tweet

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) apparently has no evidence of any death threats made against agency head Scott Pruitt, despite allegations to the contrary, including a recent tweet from President Donald Trump.

According to numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by various media outlets and reporters, the conservation-themed agency has “zero records” responsive to inquiries regarding any and all death threats made against the embattled agency director.

BuzzFeed News‘ senior investigative Reporter Jason Leopold noted this records-related discrepancy in a tweet sent late Saturday afternoon. He wrote:

I had filed a #FOIA with EPA for any records of death threats made against Scott Pruitt. EPA said it had zero records.

Leopold then suggested that maybe the agency was just lying to him about those threats. In a later tweet, addressing possible criticism of his methods, Leopold clarified that those FOIA requests were lodged with both the EPA’s headquarters and Inspector General’s office.

The Washington Post and Associated Press previously conducted similar investigations into these alleged death threats against Pruitt, but both news agencies came up empty-handed as well.

Officials speaking on behalf of Pruitt have frequently cited to alleged death threats against him when pressed to account for the unprecedentedly expensive–and oftentimes lavish–spending requests issued by Pruitt and his inner circle. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the following in comments to Fox News on Sunday:

According to EPA’s Assistant Inspector General, Scott Pruitt has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats against him and his family. Americans should all agree that members of the president’s Cabinet should be kept safe from these violent threats.

That may not be entirely accurate.

Patrick Sullivan is the EPA’s current assistant inspector general. Sullivan is the agency official tasked with investigating any threats made against EPA personnel. A September 14, 2017 E&E News story by reporter Kevin Bogardus noted that Sullivan had opened at least four investigations into alleged threats against Pruitt. None of those alleged threats, however, were characterized as “death threats” by either Sullivan or Bogardus in the story, which was itself based on various FOIA-obtained documents provided by the EPA.

In comments to the energy and environmental policy-focused publication, Sullivan said, “I can tell you we have more than three investigations. That’s for sure.” When pressed to explain the outcome of one of those investigations, Sullivan said, “It was not a direct threat. It was an implied threat that contained obscene language.”

“The U.S. attorney’s office determined that there was no probable cause to meet the statute and there was no crime committed, so they declined,” he added.

The author of that “implied threat” sent Pruitt a postcard and later apologized to EPA agents for doing so. Another postcard addressed to Pruitt called the agency director an “evil” and “ignorant fuck,” but was also determined not to contain any sort of legally cognizable threat and was ultimately dismissed by Sullivan and his investigative team.

In a New York Times report from last Thursday by reporters Eric Lipton, Kenneth P. Vogel and Lisa Friedman, Wilcox allegedly said, “They run the variety of direct death threats — ‘I’m going to put a bullet in your brain’ — to implied threats — ‘If you don’t classify this particular chemical in this particular way, I’m going to hurt you.”

It is presently unclear exactly which threats Wilcox is referencing in the above-quoted language–but some of those alleged threats bear similarities to previous threats noted by Sullivan in the E&E story: except those direct threats were made against Obama era EPA chief Gina McCarthy.

An Associated Press story released mid-morning Monday revealed that EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins has launched at least five separate probes into Pruitt’s controversial conduct.

[Law and Crime]

EPA Associate Administrator Samantha Dravis resigns

Samantha Dravis, the Environmental Protection Agency senior counsel and associate administrator in the Office of Policy, has resigned, CBS News’ Jacqueline Alemany confirmed Thursday.

Davis told CBS News in a statement, “It has been an honor to serve in this role at EPA, and I am enormously grateful for the opportunity. I wish Administrator Pruitt and all of the public servants at EPA the very best.”

Politico first reported that she submitted her resignation in order to work in the private sector, and the Washington Post reported that she was not leaving the agency because of ethical questions raised about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, including the $50 per night rental of a condo owned by the wife of a lobbyist, high flight travel costs, and large raises for two top aides.

Dravis was also the president of the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a public policy organization affiliated with the Republican Attorneys General Association, and she has also served as associate director of political affairs at the White House in George W. Bush’s administration. Pruitt was the chairman of the Rule of Law Defense Fund until November 2017.

[CBS News]

Scott Pruitt Bypassed the White House to Give Big Raises to Favorite Aides

In early March, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt approached the White House with a request: He wanted substantial pay raises for two of his closest aides.

The aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, were part of the small group of staffers who had traveled with Pruitt to Washington from Oklahoma, where he had served as attorney general. Greenwalt, a 30-year-old who had worked as Pruitt’s general counsel in Oklahoma, was now his senior counsel at the EPA. Hupp, 26, was working on his political team before she moved to D.C. to become the agency’s scheduling director.

Pruitt asked that Greenwalt’s salary be raised from $107,435 to $164,200; Hupp’s, from $86,460 to $114,590. Because both women were political appointees, he needed the White House to sign-off on their new pay.

According to a source with direct knowledge of the meeting, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, staffers from the Presidential Personnel Office dismissed Pruitt’s application. The White House, the source said, declined to approve the raises.

So Pruitt found another way.

A provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act allows the EPA administrator to hire up to 30 people into the agency, without White House or congressional approval. The provision, meant to help expedite the hiring of experts and allow for more flexible staffing, became law in 1996. In past administrations, it has been used to hire specialists into custom-made roles in especially stressed offices, according to Bob Perciasepe, a former acting EPA administrator.

After the White House rejected their request, Pruitt’s team studied the particulars of the Safe Drinking Water provision, according to the source with direct knowledge of these events. By reappointing Greenwalt and Hupp under this authority, they learned, Pruitt could exercise total control over their contracts and grant the raises on his own.

Pruitt ordered it done. Though Hupp and Greenwalt’s duties did not change, the agency began processing them for raises of $28,130 and $56,765, respectively, compared with their 2017 salaries. Less than two weeks after Pruitt had approached the White House, according to time-stamped Human Resources documents shared with The Atlantic, the paperwork was finished.

Word of the raises quickly began to circulate through the agency. The episode infuriated some staffers; to some political aides, it was evidence of Pruitt’s disregard for the White House’s warnings to cabinet officials that they avoid even the appearance of impropriety. It also underscored the administrator’s tendency to play favorites among his staff, according to two sources with direct knowledge of agency dynamics. Hupp, in particular, is making more than her Obama-era predecessor, a five-year veteran of the agency who did not break six figures until the final year of the administration, according to public records. (While Greenwalt has no obvious peer in the Obama administration, the EPA’s general counsel had an annual salary of $155,500 in 2016.)

Said one EPA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press: “This whole thing has completely gutted any morale I had left to put up with this place.”

“The Safe Drinking Water Act provides the EPA with broad authority to appoint scientific, engineering, professional, legal, and administrative positions within EPA without regard to the civil service laws. This is clear authority that has been relied on by previous administrations,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement. “The Administrator was not aware that these personnel actions had not been submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office. So, the Administrator has directed that they be submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office for review.”

The White House did not return requests for comment.

[The Atlantic]

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