Two of EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s top aides have 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 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 congressional aides for several hours on Thursday, followed by Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, on Friday.
Both 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.
Dravis’ attorney, Andrew Herman, said in an interview Monday that his client answered questions from Republicans and Democrats “as forthrightly and candidly as she could, and she pushed back on both sides when they were either wrong or pushing their agenda.”
“I don’t think she was trying to protect anybody, and I don’t think she was trying to hurt anybody,” Herman said. “She was giving her view of what happened.”
According to an individual with knowledge of the matter, Dravis told congressional staffers that Pruitt initially asked her to contact the Republican Attorneys General Assn. — 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 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.
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 the 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.
“Pruitt is the gift that keeps on giving in terms of examples of how senior government officials, particularly in this administration, abuse their power and their position,” Fox said, “and really treat the government’s resources — of which the most valuable are personnel — as personal servants.”
Fox said that because most of the behavior Pruitt has been accused of involves violations that fall under federal Standards of Ethical Conduct for executive branch employees, it is up to either the president or his chief of staff to respond.
“If we were talking about any other federal employee, it would be that person’s supervisor to take disciplinary action, which could be anything from counseling to dismissal from public service,” he said. “This falls squarely on the shoulders of the president, and he seems to do nothing but go out of his way to praise Scott Pruitt.”
Officials on Capitol Hill declined to comment on the two aides’ testimony.
“The committee plans to wait until the conclusion of our investigation to release our findings,” Charli Huddleston, a spokeswoman for House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), said in an email. “Selectively releasing interview accounts damages the credibility of our investigation and discourages future witnesses from coming forward,” she said.
Dravis, who the Washington Post recently reported had helped seek employment for Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn, told investigators that the administrator wanted his spouse to find a post with an annual salary of more than $200,000, according to one individual familiar with the matter.
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.
When Dravis raised the prospect of discussing the job search with an official in EPA’s ethics office, the former aide told congressional staffers, Pruitt instructed her instead to consult Mitchell.
During her session with investigators Thursday, according to two individuals, Dravis also described how Pruitt asked her and another former top aide, Sarah Greenwalt, to review a rental agreement that he had decided to break. Pruitt and his wife lived briefly last year in Washington’s U Street corridor before relocating — a move that forced them to pay a penalty. The administrator asked the two advisors, both of whom are attorneys, to examine the lease to see if there was a way to avoid the penalty, Dravis told committee staffers.
Jackson, according to two individuals familiar with the matter, confirmed that he had helped connect Pruitt with a fellow Oklahoman, lobbyist Steven Hart, to reach a housing deal in early 2017. The initial arrangement — under which Pruitt agreed to pay $50 a night only on the days when he stayed in the condo owned by Hart’s wife, Vicki — was supposed to last six weeks, Jackson said.
A spokesman for the Harts said Monday that Pruitt was initially supposed to stay in the Capitol Hill condo for 39 days. He lived there for six months, and the matter is now under review by lawmakers and the EPA’s inspector general, according to those offices.
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.
“Committee counsel explicitly asked me at the beginning of the morning not to reveal what the Committee asked me about,” Jackson said in an email. “I don’t know if there’s an obligation to follow that, but I intend to honor that request as long as Committee counsel honors it as well.”
Investigators at the Office of Special Counsel, on Capitol Hill and at the EPA’s inspector general’s office continue to probe an array of spending and management decisions during Pruitt’s time in office.
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.
Attorney Reginald Brown, who handled Pruitt’s financial disclosure documents in early 2017, took the step of asking an EPA ethics official to develop procedures to make sure Pruitt was compliant with federal rules on travel and political activity, two people familiar with the meeting said. Pruitt’s frequent EPA-funded trips to Oklahoma have been one subject of the ethics probes he faces.
“Mr. Brown’s request for EPA ethics officials to help the new Administrator seems like a normal and reasonable request, that’s what EPA ethics officials are here to do,” Konkus said.
Brown declined to comment on the matter.
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.
Wyrick is currently awaiting Senate confirmation to sit on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. Wyrick’s name has also been floated in the last week as a possible candidate to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
“EPA cannot speak to a personal conversation between Administrator Pruitt and Justice Wyrick,” Konkus said.
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 about $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.