Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was sworn into office only six months ago but is already attracting widespread scrutiny for alleged misuse of agency funds, potential violation of a lobbying law, and holding secret meetings with officials from the industries his agency is tasked with regulating.
Upon arrival at the agency, the new EPA administrator pledged a back-to-basics philosophy. That shift in agency priorities, however, appears to be geared toward raising the profile of Pruitt at the expense of cleaner air and water for Americans.
As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt made a name for himself by suing the EPA, claiming the Obama administration had gone too far in asserting federal power. As EPA administrator, Pruitt has found himself the target of lawsuits and legal scrutiny for various types of alleged misconduct.
“The growing number of investigations, inquiries and controversies swirling around Administrator Pruitt should come as no surprise,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in an email to ThinkProgress. “Just like his boss, President Trump, this is what happens when you hand someone a job they’re exquisitely unfit to do.”
Democratic House members wrote a letter to Pruitt on Wednesday raising concerns over a “lack of transparency” at the agency. The letter was signed by House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-NJ), House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee ranking member Diana DeGette (D-CO), and House Environment Subcommittee ranking member Paul Tonko (D-NY).
“We are troubled by reports that the agency continues to operate with complete disregard for transparency by discontinuing the long-standing practice of posting the calendars of agency leadership online, taking down agency websites, and halting certain data collections from polluters,” the lawmakers wrote.
The EPA reportedly halted data collection of oil and gas company emissions and closed more than 1,900 agency webpages, the lawmakers said. Employee movement with the agency’s headquarters building is severely restricted, with employees requiring escorts. Employees also are told not to take notes in meetings or carry their cellphones, they said.
“Taken together, these actions suggest a troubling pattern of secrecy and distrust at EPA, which serves to undermine the agency’s mission of protecting human health and the environment,” the House members stated.
EPA employees “feel like there’s been a hostile takeover and the guy in charge is treating them like enemies,” Christopher Sellers, an expert in environmental history at Stony Brook University, told the New York Times.
Other energy- and environment-related department and agency heads in the Trump administration have received criticism for their lack of transparency. During his review of national monuments across the country, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was called out for not holding a single public meeting.
The Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General also has launched a “preliminary investigation” over reports that Zinke threatened to pull funding from Alaskan energy projects if Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) did not vote in support of President Donald Trump’s health care proposal. However, the list of official complaints against Pruitt far outnumber those against Zinke.
Soon after heading to Washington to lead the EPA, Pruitt found himself under investigation by officials in his home state. The Oklahoma Bar Association opened an inquiry in March into Pruitt’s testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing regarding his use of personal email to conduct official business as Oklahoma attorney general.
Last month, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent a letter and filed documents with the Oklahoma Bar Association related to another complaint filed against Pruitt. The documents included new records suggesting Pruitt’s former office “stonewalled” senators during his confirmation process before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the senator’s office said.
Pruitt’s behavior “initially stymied our Committee’s ability to adequately discharge our advice and consent responsibilities and presently stymie its ability to conduct effective oversight of Mr. Pruitt and EPA,” the senator wrote. Whitehouse submitted the documents to supplement a complaint filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Kristen van de Biezenbos, a former professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law who now teaches law at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.
In the spring, the EPA also received complaints that Pruitt had violated its Scientific Integrity Policy by stating that carbon dioxide is not a “primary contributor to global warming,” a position commonly heard from climate science deniers — and from fossil fuel interests, two groups that frequently overlap. Pruitt met with members of these groups as Oklahoma attorney general and has kept an open door policy for them as EPA administrator.
The agency’s Office of the Science Adviser ultimately cleared Pruitt of the charges brought by the Sierra Club, which said it had received a letter from the office explaining its decision. The letter effectively lets Pruitt off the hook for deceiving the American public regularly in high-profile contexts, Elena Saxonhouse, a senior attorney for the Sierra Club, said in an August 3 statement.
“If EPA’s current scientific integrity policy and review process is truly not strong enough to make clear that Pruitt’s denial of climate science is unacceptable for the head of EPA, then that’s simply evidence that the policy must be strengthened,” Saxonhouse said.
Largely owing to the secrecy surrounding the major changes occurring at the agency, the EPA, in June and July, received more than 2,000 Freedom of Information of Act requests for details about the inner workings of the agency and Pruitt’s daily activities, according to the New York Times.
President Barack Obama’s first EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, was the target of a congressional investigation for using private and secret email addresses — including one account under the alias Richard Windsor — to conduct official business. Scientists at the agency also complained about political minders sitting in on their interviews with reporters and needing clearance before speaking with the news media.
The tenure of Gina McCarthy, who succeeded Jackson as EPA administrator in March 2013, was free of high-profile ethical controversies and scandals.
“Pruitt is under unprecedented investigation or scrutiny because he is doing unprecedented things,” Jonathan Levenshus, senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told ThinkProgress. “He is damaging the expectations of transparency and accountability that we expect from our leaders and our government.”
“He is damaging the expectations of transparency and accountability that we expect from our leaders and our government.”
With McCarthy and Jackson, they were scrutinized for their travel and with whom they met. McCarthy traveled frequently to her home in Boston, where her husband lived; however, McCarthy paid for those trips herself while taxpayers paid for Pruitt’s trips to Oklahoma, according to a New York Times report last month.
“It seems to me that there was an openness to it, there was some transparency to it, and there was some accountability to it,” Levenshus said of Obama’s EPA administrators. “And that doesn’t seem to be the case with Pruitt.”
Pruitt is also facing an inquiry by the agency’s inspector general into the frequent trips that he made to Oklahoma on the taxpayer’s dime. Pruitt reportedly traveled to Oklahoma 43 days, or nearly half of all days during March, April, and May 2017, at a cost of more than $15,000. Records indicate Pruitt attended “informational meetings” during his trips to Oklahoma. But those same records also indicate that his trips to the state lasted three to five days, with only one such meeting listed during each of those multi-day trips away from Washington.
Many political observers believe that Pruitt has his eye on the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK). Inhofe’s term ends in 2020, but the 82-year-old has not indicated whether he will seek another as senator. Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce said Monday that Pruitt “seems to be using these visits to launch his political career.” His chances of winning a Senate seat in the deeply conservative state could be boosted if he could show residents that he was the driving force behind reversing many of the agency’s regulatory policies.
According to Levenshus, Pruitt has visited almost two dozen states since February where he typically meets with Republican officials and does interviews with sympathetic talk radio shows and local Fox News television affiliates.
Since taking over as administrator, Pruitt has met repeatedly with oil and gas executives, coal mining groups, and Big Ag industry representatives. These industries have a long list of regulations they would like the EPA to revoke or weaken, including a rule requiring stricter emissions monitoring, the Clean Power Plan, and the Paris climate agreement, which Trump announced in May that the United States would exit
Last month, a watchdog group sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office accusing Pruitt of misusing federal funds by engaging in “grassroots lobbying” against the Paris climate agreement. In April, he reportedly told the National Mining Association about his opposition to the climate agreement. The American Democracy Legal Fund claims such a pronouncement runs afoul of federal lobbying laws because members of Congress had previously introduced bills pertaining to the Paris deal.
“In his official capacity as EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt publicly denounced the Paris climate accord and sought to defeat pending bills and resolutions before Congress that would have affirmed legislative support for the Paris climate accord,” the group wrote in its letter. “His public and closed-door comments represent a misuse of appropriated funds in violation of the Antideficiency Act.”
As with most of his trips, Pruitt’s recent visit to North Dakota was off-limits to the public and the press. When two local reporters traveled to the University of North Dakota, a public university, prior to the start of an event on campus, an EPA spokesperson threatened to call police if they did not leave the grounds. Campus police later showed up and told the reporters they could not be at the building because it was private property. The building was not private property and is owned by the University of North Dakota.
Unlike previous EPA administrators, Pruitt also has asked for a protective detail that is on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, rather than the door-to-door security provided to previous EPA leaders. Such protective details are typically reserved for those in national security positions or persons in the constitutional line of succession, such as the Secretary of State, Speaker of the House, and the Secretary of Defense.
“What is he trying to hide from the public? I think he doesn’t want the public to know the truth about who he’s meeting and what he’s discussing with them,” Levenshus said. “His entire career, he has put the agenda of corporate polluters before the health of communities and children and families. And now it has caught up to him. And there are a lot of people who are very concerned about his position and what he is doing as the administrator of the EPA.”