Politics & Government

Aides to Kentuckian Scott Pruitt reveal details of questionable EPA spending, management

An Oklahoma State Supreme Court justice apparently cautioned Scott Pruitt before and after he became EPA chief that his spending could lead to ethics problems and that he should curb it.
An Oklahoma State Supreme Court justice apparently cautioned Scott Pruitt before and after he became EPA chief that his spending could lead to ethics problems and that he should curb it. TNS

Two of Scott Pruitt’s top aides provided fresh details to congressional investigators in recent days about some of his most controversial spending and management decisions, including his push to find a six-figure job for his wife at a politically connected group, enlist staffers in performing personal tasks and seek high-end travel despite aides’ objections.

The Trump administration appointees described an administrator who sought a salary that topped $200,000 for his wife and accepted help from a subordinate in the job search, requested aid from senior EPA officials in a dispute with a Washington, D.C., landlord and disregarded concerns about his first-class travel.

The interviews conducted by staffers for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee late last week shed new light on the EPA administrator’s willingness to leverage his position for his personal benefit and to ignore warnings even from allies about potential ethical issues, according to three individuals familiar with the sessions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.

The EPA’s former associate administrator for the Office of Policy, Samantha Dravis, spoke to Republican and Democratic aides for several hours on Thursday, followed by Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, on Friday.

Both aides described instances in which their boss pressed to travel first-class or via private jet, while Dravis acknowleged that Pruitt asked his subordinates to do non-official work for him, multiple individuals said.

According to an individual with knowledge of the matter, Dravis told congressional staffers that Pruitt initially asked her to contact the Republican Attorneys General Association — a group Pruitt had once led and Dravis had worked for before coming to EPA — as part of the job search for his wife. Dravis said she declined to make that call to avoid any potential conflicts of interest or possible violations of the Hatch Act, which limits federal officials’ political activities.

Working with GOP lawyer Cleta Mitchell, Dravis eventually did help find Marlyn Pruitt a job at the Judicial Crisis Network, but the conservative group said it paid her less than six figures to work as an independent contractor setting up new offices. The arrangement ended earlier this year, the group told The Post.

Agency spokesman John Konkus declined via email Monday to comment. “EPA has not spoken with Mr. Jackson or Ms. Dravis about their testimony,” he said.

The new accounts by Pruitt’s handpicked staff come as EPA’s chief ethics officer, Kevin Minoli, has urged the agency’s Office of Inspector General to broaden its review of Pruitt’s conduct. Minoli told the Office of Government Ethics in a letter dated Wednesday that he suggested the move after “additional potential issues regarding Mr. Pruitt have come to my attention through sources within the EPA and media reports.”

Don Fox, former acting director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said in an interview Sunday that the fact that the administrator asked federal employees to perform multiple tasks unrelated to their official work raises serious questions about whether the EPA administrator has violated federal rules of official conduct.

Officials on Capitol Hill declined to comment on the aides’ testimony.

Jackson said he, along with Dravis, also had raised concerns about the administrator’s decision to begin routinely traveling first class. Pruitt, who has repeatedly said that agency security experts made the decision to switch him to premium seats, returned to traveling coach earlier this year.

Even before Pruitt took the helm of the EPA, however, some of his own associates had tried to head off potential ethics issues, according to four individuals familiar with the matter.

These individuals, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said that some of the Republicans tasked with preparing him for Senate confirmation warned Pruitt that he needed to be careful to avoid conflicts of interest or spending decisions that could amount to — or be perceived as — a misuse of taxpayer funds.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State Supreme Court Justice Patrick Wyrick, who worked as the state’s solicitor general while Pruitt served as attorney general, cautioned Pruitt before and after he had assumed the helm of the EPA that his spending could lead to ethics problems and that he should curb it.

Pruitt’s approach during transition foreshadowed the kind of the behavior that has attracted scrutiny in recent months. According to a current and former EPA official, Pruitt routinely asked his assistants — including then-executive scheduler Sydney Hupp — to put hotel reservations on their personal credit cards rather than his own.

In one instance, according to former deputy chief of staff Kevin Chmielewski, Hupp was stuck with a bill of roughly $600 for a booking she had made for the administrator’s family during the transition. Chmielewski said in an interview last month that he was in Jackson’s office when Hupp approached Pruitt’s chief of staff to explain that the period for transition reimbursements had expired and Pruitt had not covered the bill.

The incident, aspects of which were first reported in the Hill newspaper, prompted Jackson to leave $600 in cash in Hupp’s drawer.

Hupp could not be reached for comment.