WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt came to Washington and assembled an extraordinary team of like-minded conservatives — lawyers, energy lobbyists, free-market Republicans and close allies from his days in Oklahoma.
In little more than a year, most of them were gone, chased away by scandal or disillusionment over what they viewed as a loss of focus by a boss distracted by the trappings of power — building an elaborate security team, traveling first class, seeking special benefits for his family — who then blamed his own staff for the missteps.
Pruitt’s fall from the EPA is a story of his diminishing relationship with many of his closest loyalists. Instead of focusing on making history by reshaping American environmental policy, they found themselves not only defending their actions before investigators, but also calling out Pruitt in ways that exposed him to public scrutiny and ultimately led to his downfall.
Among them is Samantha Dravis, Pruitt’s former top policy chief, who resigned in April. During her tenure, Pruitt asked her to help with personal matters, like reviewing his apartment lease. Last week she sat on Capitol Hill being questioned by a congressional panel investigating whether Pruitt had asked her to help his wife land a lucrative job. She was being asked to blame her boss.
“I was explicitly asked by Administrator Pruitt” to help his wife find work, Dravis told the investigators, according to a transcript of her interview released Thursday afternoon, shortly after Pruitt resigned. She added, “There’s no reason I can think of why I would want to insert myself into such a situation.”
Pruitt became similarly isolated from many of his closest confidants, said David Schnare, a 34-year veteran of the agency who served on President Donald Trump’s transition team and who left the EPA himself after a falling-out with Pruitt over the rules governing ethanol use in gasoline.
“Who did he have left?” Schnare said. “He didn’t have much of anybody left.”
Pruitt has proud supporters, among them Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist who describes Pruitt as the outsider that the EPA needed, someone who had built a career far from Washington and therefore could forcefully shake up the status quo. “Like all of us, he’s his own worst enemy,” McKenna said, but he was changing the culture of the agency and eliminating government regulations.
“A big part of the reason why the left went after Scott is because they disagreed with what he was doing at the agency,” McKenna added.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a longtime supporter of Pruitt, praised his “great work to reduce the nation’s regulatory burdens.” In recent months, Inhofe had criticized some of Pruitt’s actions, but on Thursday, shortly after the resignation, he said Pruitt was crucial to Trump’s mission. “He was single-minded at restoring the EPA to its proper statutory authority and ending the burdensome regulations that have stifled economic growth across the country,” Inhofe said.
Nevertheless, even as Pruitt proposed historic rollbacks of government rules, jokes about a used mattress, a Chick-fil-A franchise and a $50-a-night condo became shorthand in American culture for an EPA under fire as ethics crises consumed Pruitt’s top aides one by one.
Millan and Sydney Hupp, sisters and Pruitt family friends from Oklahoma, became Pruitt’s Washington gatekeepers, helping book trips nationwide to meet with oil executives, coal miners, farmers and other groups. But Pruitt also asked Sydney Hupp to set up a meeting with Chick-fil-A to seek a franchise for his wife. She resigned last summer.
Millan Hupp stepped down in June after Pruitt blamed her for telling investigators that, among other things, she helped him try to buy a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel. The same day she quit, so did Sarah Greenwalt, Pruitt’s senior counsel overseeing water policy. Greenwalt and Hupp were given substantial pay raises that Pruitt denied having approved and later rescinded.
And Pruitt’s top press official, Liz Bowman, formerly of the American Chemistry Council, left in May after Pruitt blamed her for the media attention he was getting for renting a condo for $50 a night from the wife of an energy lobbyist.
The EPA did not respond to requests for comment on Pruitt’s relationship with his senior aides. Pruitt’s spokesman, Jahan Wilcox, has denied any wrongdoing on the part of the administrator.
Perhaps the highest-profile departure was that of Kevin Chmielewski. He had arrived at the EPA in April 2017 and was soon named deputy chief of staff for operations.
He came with unimpeachable Republican credentials, having served as an aide to several major Republican presidential candidates in the past two decades, including Mitt Romney and John McCain. He had worked on the Trump campaign from its start.
But in his first months at the agency, Chmielewski said Friday, he began to question whether some of Pruitt’s actions were hurting the deregulatory mission he had signed on for. He cited Pruitt’s spending on security measures and first-class flights as well as his requests that aides handle personal tasks for him, like picking up dry cleaning, while also keeping some of his meetings off his publicly released schedule.
“You can’t do that stuff,” said Chmielewski, who left in February after his own falling-out with Pruitt. “I was always waiting for the vice president’s office or somebody at the White House to step in and say, ‘Wait a minute, guys, this has to stop.’ But it never happened.”
Chmielewski took a temporary job as a waiter in West Ocean City, Maryland, at the Sunset Grille and Teasers dockside bar. Next week, he said, he will be returning to Washington to testify to congressional investigators.
Ryan Jackson, the EPA chief of staff, has disputed Chmielewski’s depictions of the agency and Pruitt, characterizing him in an interview this week as a disgruntled former employee.
Over the course of his 16 months as EPA administrator, Pruitt unveiled numerous major policy initiatives, such as the rollback of Obama-era rules on vehicle tailpipe emissions and the scaling back of a regulation on water pollution. However, some of the policies faced criticism for being hastily assembled in ways that made them vulnerable to challenge.
That is at least in part because he resisted advice from career EPA staff members as well as his senior political aides, Schnare said. For example, Pruitt preferred not to have Kevin Minoli, the agency’s principal deputy general counsel and top ethics official, attend senior staff meetings, Schnare said, because Minoli’s expertise put him in a position to push back against policies.
Minoli declined to comment.
And as Pruitt’s senior staff members began to question some of his actions, he retaliated. Instead of targeting the “deep state” — the idea, favored among some conservatives, that the government bureaucracy and liberal interests team up to block their aims — Pruitt blamed his own staff.
In three cases, Pruitt’s team tried to ease out staff members who had questioned his actions or had clashed over his management by telling them to resign but offering two to three months of extra pay, according to three former EPA officials, including Chmielewski, who said he had been offered this arrangement and had declined.
Another instance occurred last summer when Jackson and Chmielewski fired Pruitt’s scheduler, Madeline G. Morris, after she raised concerns that she was being asked to break the law by deleting details about meetings on Pruitt’s calendar. At the time she was fired, the two EPA officials arranged for her to receive an additional six weeks of pay, according to an email between Morris and Jackson released as part of a lawsuit over public records by the Sierra Club.
Federal rules prohibit paying an employee for work not performed.
Chmielewski, in an interview, acknowledged that the arrangement was made. Jackson declined to comment Thursday.
Several of Pruitt’s former staff members have said in interviews that the last straw came on April 26 when their boss testified before two congressional committees. Asked by lawmakers about allegations of impropriety against him, Pruitt deflected blame on his staff, particularly his chief of staff, Jackson, whom he blamed for making decisions such as the illegal purchase of a $43,000 secure telephone booth.
Many senior aides had been personally recruited by Jackson.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Lisa Friedman, Eric Lipton and Coral Davenport © 2018 The New York Times