Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt told Fox News on Wednesday that members of his staff, not him, are guilty of using an obscure loophole to give two of his staffers significant pay raises, even though the White House rejected the salary increases.
When asked by Fox News why he went around President Trump to give the pay raises, Pruitt denied he approved the salary increases. “I did not. My staff did. And I found out about that yesterday and I changed it,” Pruitt said in the interview.
Reporter Ed Henry asked him who approved the salary increases and whether it was a career EPA employee or a political appointee. “I don’t know,” Pruitt responded.
“You run the agency,” Henry responded incredulously. “You don’t know who did this?”
The Atlantic reported Tuesday that Pruitt filed a formal application with the White House last month for substantial pay raises for the two aides. The Trump administration, however, declined to approve the raises.
After the raises were rejected, Pruitt reportedly used a little-known 1977 provision to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to give the two young political staffers he had brought with him from Oklahoma. By reappointing the staffers under this authority, Pruitt could exercise total control over their contracts under the SDWA and grant the pay raises on his own.
Within two weeks of the White House rejecting the raises, Sarah Greenwalt, a 30-year-old attorney working as Pruitt’s senior counsel, received a $56,000 raise and now makes $164,200. And 26-year old Millan Hupp, Pruitt’s scheduling director, received a $28,000 raise and now makes over $114,590.
Though Hupp and Greenwalt’s duties did not change, the EPA began processing them for raises of $28,130 and $56,765, respectively, compared with their 2017 salaries, according to The Atlantic. The raises were granted less than two weeks after they were denied by the White House, the magazine reported.
When asked by Henry if he knew the median income in the U.S. is $56,000, Pruitt said he did not know.
“So one of your friends from Oklahoma got a pay raise that’s the median income,” Henry said.
“They did not get a pay raise,” Pruitt emphasized. “I stopped that yesterday.”
Asked whether he is embarrassed that the pay raises took effect under his watch, Pruitt said, “It should not have happened. The officials that were involved in that process should not have done what they did.”
When pressed by Henry, Pruitt said the two staffers “serve a very important person here,” although it’s possible the EPA administrator misspoke and instead meant to say “serve a very important purpose here.”
In a statement, the Sierra Club said Pruitt knows he’s “in hot water” with Trump.
“Scott Pruitt is pressed hard to explain why he directly defied Donald Trump by coordinating massive raises for his staff through an obscure loophole — after the Trump White House rejected those raises,” the environmental group said Wednesday in a statement. “Pruitt attempts to pass the buck, blaming someone else, but he doesn’t actually know who.”
Shortly after the Fox News interview aired on Wednesday, Trump spokesperson Sarah Sanders during a White House press briefing was asked about another ongoing Pruitt scandal — his arrangement in 2017 to rent an apartment from energy industry-connected lobbyist for only $50 per day. Sanders said the White House is “currently reviewing” the apartment deal.
At the White House press briefing, a reporter asked: “As you know, Sarah, the president promised to drain the swamp. His [Pruitt’s] behavior and actions seem very swamp-like. Why is the president okay with this?
Sanders responded: “The president’s not.”
In response to whether Trump still has confidence in Pruitt, Sanders said: “The president thinks that he’s done a good job, particularly on the deregulation front.”
Meanwhile, Pruitt also used the obscure provision of the SDWA to hire two ex-lobbyists who were then assigned roles crucial to maintaining clean water, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Pruitt used the law to hire Lee Forsgren, a former attorney for the fossil fuel lobbying firm HBW Resources, which has campaigned for the controversial Dakota Access pipeline and Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Last year, Forsgren became the Office of Water’s deputy assistant administrator, where he has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act, the SDWA, and, oil spills.
Pruitt also used the law to hire Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry lobbyist, as the top deputy at the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.