Emails show Heritage Foundation offered Pruitt flights, hotel, and talking points for its conference

The think tank also helped arrange accommodation for other EPA staffers.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt enters the hearing room prior to his testimony before the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on April 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Alex Edelman/Getty Images)
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt enters the hearing room prior to his testimony before the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on April 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

The Heritage Foundation — a free market think tank known for promoting climate science denial — paid for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s hotel stay while attending a conference in Colorado last year. The think tank also offered to cover his flights.

In May 2017, the Heritage Foundation hosted the Resource Bank’s 40th annual meeting in Colorado Springs. The agenda included items such as “Innovative Ways to Roll Back the Administrative State.” Pruitt was a guest speaker at the event’s dinner on May 11 and was slated to speak for about 10 minutes after the main course.

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As emails between Heritage Foundation and EPA staffers show, the think tank also provided talking points for Pruitt to use in his speech — this included discussing the Paris climate agreement.

Pruitt has had a close relationship with the Heritage Foundation throughout his time as EPA administrator. Most recently, this includes a closed-door meeting in March to discuss his “secret science” policy introduced at the end of April, and a meeting last month where he thanked the group and others in attendance for coming to his defense amidst growing ethics scandals.

Last year, Pruitt gave three speeches at the D.C.-based think tank. And as the new documents show, the Heritage Foundation has also been willing to cover some of Pruitt’s expenses on at least one occasion to attend an event it hosted outside the capital. 

Previous documents released last fall to nonprofit American Oversight first brought Pruitt’s attendance at the conference to light. However, emails released this week to the Sierra Club following a freedom of information legal battle shed new light on the details of the arrangement and confirmed the costs covered by the Heritage Foundation.

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Pruitt is “exhibit A for a cabinet with a record number of ethical challenges and violations,” said Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy and external affairs at D.C. watchdog group Common Cause, adding that “it is completely reasonable to be asking these sorts of questions and applying high level of scrutiny [because Pruitt has] proven to be extraordinarily slippery when it comes to abiding [to ethical standards].”

As a May 22, 2017 email to EPA travel coordinator Gail Davis from Alexa Legas, an event coordinator at Heritage, stated: “Attached is the Administrator’s hotel bill from Colorado Springs that Heritage covered.” 

The bill shows that Pruitt stayed at The Broadmoor (where the conference was hosted) for one night on May 11 — the room plus tax cost a total of $260.55. A separate email sent to Pruitt’s executive scheduler, Sydney Hupp, in advance of the conference also states that Heritage would pay for Pruitt’s “round-trip airfare” to Colorado Springs.

Pruitt's Colorado hotel bill covered by the Heritage Foundation. Credit: Sierra Club.
Pruitt's Colorado hotel bill covered by the Heritage Foundation. Credit: Sierra Club.

It’s unknown whether the think tank ended up covering flights. The emails do not specify the cost of the flight or how much Heritage covered. According to previous reports by the Denver Post, however, Pruitt’s May 2017 travel to Colorado for the conference, then to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the weekend, before returning to Washington, D.C., cost a total of $2,690 in commercial airfare.

The Heritage Foundation didn’t just arrange Pruitt’s accommodations in Colorado Springs; as the emails detail, the think tank also took care of booking rooms for several other EPA staffers, including Pruitt’s head of security at the time, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, and his director of scheduling and advance, Millan Hupp.

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It’s unclear whether the EPA or Heritage paid for these additional rooms. One email from Jessica Larsen, former event planner at Heritage, states: “Hi Millan, Apologies for the additional email — can you confirm if we are covering nights for all of the below guests? Or only the Administrator and Lincoln?” (Lincoln Ferguson is a speechwriter for Pruitt and reportedly one of the aides who received a significant raise with the administrator’s help.)

Hupp followed up with Larsen via phone.

Both the EPA and the Heritage Foundation did not reply to request for comment by ThinkProgress to confirm the extent to which the think tank covered the costs of EPA staffers.

According to a document released to American Oversight, however, when the EPA was deciding whether to accept the Heritage Foundation’s offer to pay for Pruitt’s expenses, it found “no ethics concerns with respect to this event.”

An April 5, 2017 email from EPA ethics officer Jennie Keith to Sydney Hupp states: “Because the official has been invited to speak and present information on behalf of the agency… acceptance of free attendance and any meals provided on the day of the event is not considered a gift.”

According to executive branch ethics regulations, “free attendance” does not include travel, lodging, or entertainment “collateral to the event.” Anything which falls into this category must be authorized in advance and reported on the agency’s travel report published on the Office for Government Ethics website. While the Colorado hotel cost for Pruitt’s room is declared in the report, it appears that if any flights were provided by Heritage, they are not listed. No details appear for any other EPA staffers.

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The EPA ethics email goes on to say that “because this is not a gift, there are no financial disclosure reporting obligations.”

“Government officials certainly speak to interest groups all the time … that I think is a good thing, we want to have public engagement,” said Spaulding from Common Cause, “but important questions need to be answered when it’s paid for by organizations that have a very specific agenda, often times that is in direct conflict with the responsibilities of the agency.”

As for who ended up paying for Pruitt’s flights, “that’s the question,” said Spaulding.

In addition to accepting Heritage’s offer to cover hotel expenses, the EPA was also receptive to talking points offered by the think tank for Pruitt’s speech.

A May 5, 2017 email from Larsen offers the following topics for the administrator to discuss: “He should remind the audience of some of the fights he was engaged in with the Obama Administration (and just how bad it was). His selection as EPA Administrator (and maybe mention Sen. Sessions as AG and others now in the Administration who have fought hard to rollback and contain the power of the federal government) should give us hope. The Paris Climate Agreement is one area the audience will be interested in hearing about.”

In response, the EPA said it would loop in Pruitt’s speechwriter, Ferguson, “who will find these remarks helpful in preparing talking points.”

Pruitt’s attendance at the Colorado conference came less than a month before President Trump’s announcement to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement — a decision he made with Pruitt’s help and which was welcomed by Heritage. Trump would, for instance, reference misleading information compiled by the think tank regarding the economic cost of the deal as one reason for why it was a bad deal.

In a statement emailed to ThinkProgress, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune called for Pruitt to resign or be fired. “These documents expose a deeply rooted culture of corruption surrounding Scott Pruitt and his dealings in essentially every aspect of his job,” Brune said. “Scott Pruitt doesn’t live in the swamp — he is the swamp.”