Two letters sent by top Democratic senators and representatives to President Donald Trump and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt Thursday reveal new information about the administrator’s questionable travel habits and what prompted him to fire former deputy chief of staff Kevin Chmielewski.
Chmielewski, a lifelong Republican and former Trump aide, was placed on administrative leave in February by Pruitt. Chmielewski told Democratic senators and representatives he believes he was “marginalized, removed from his senior position and placed on administrative leave” for speaking up about Pruitt’s “inappropriate and unethical spending.”
The two letters provide fresh insight into the way Pruitt treated those around him, including top political appointees, who questioned his extravagant use of taxpayer dollars.
The letters to Trump and Pruitt were signed by Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Reps. Elijah Commings (D-MD), Gerald Connolly (D-VA), and Don Beyer (D-VA). In one, they state that their conversation with Chmielewski “painted an extremely troubling picture of wasteful spending, unethical behavior, and improper retaliation against EPA staff.”
Among the many new revelations contained in the two letters, Chmielewski alleges he was fired shortly after he refused to retroactively approve a first-class return flight for former EPA senior counsel and associate administrator in the Office of Policy Samantha Dravis, who flew to Morocco in December with Pruitt.
Chmielewski told the senators that Pruitt approved Dravis’ first-class travel “even though there was no legal justification for her to do so.”
As Chmielewski claims, after he returned from a trip to Asia in February, Pruitt’s head of security, Nino Perrotta, tried to have Chmielewski’s EPA credentials confiscated. During one call, Chmielewski described Perrotta saying he would go to Chmielewski’s home and forcibly retrieve his EPA parking pass, saying that he “didn’t give a f–k who is on this call.”
Chmielewski “found the statements to be threatening and reported them to the local police, the White House Office of Presidential Personnel and numerous EPA officials,” the letter reads. It states that since this incident, Chmielewski has been on administrative leave but it was through reading media reports that he learned that his position had been terminated.
The letters also detail how Pruitt’s travel destinations were “often dictated” by his “desire to visit particular cities or countries rather than official business.” He would then direct staff to “find me something to do [in those locations]” in order to justify the use of taxpayer funds.
Pruitt would do the same in order to frequently spend long weekends back home in Oklahoma, the letters allege.
Staff were also frequently directed to book flights on Delta in order to accrue more frequent flyer miles for the EPA administrator, even if Delta was not the federal government’s contract carrier for that route.
According to the letters, Pruitt would also frequently exceed his allowable U.S. government per diem rate, “sometimes even exceeding the 300 percent cap permitted in exceptional circumstances.” While Pruitt would have his expenses redeemed, the letter claims that there have been times when members of his security detail accompanying him did not have their expenses redeemed.
In two specific instances, on trips to Italy and Australia, Pruitt allegedly refused to stay at hotels recommended by the U.S. embassy. Instead, he chose to stay at more expensive hotels “with fewer standard security resources.” Pruitt would then bring his own security team with him at the taxpayer’s expense, the letter states.
The letter addressed to Trump states that while Chmielewski repeatedly reaffirmed his loyalty to Trump, Chmielewski explained his decision to speak out against Pruitt as, “regardless of political party, ‘right is right, and wrong is wrong.'”
While Chmielewski’s account provides a new level of insight into the way Pruitt has sought to quash opposition within the EPA, he isn’t alone — at least four other EPA employees were demoted or reassigned for questioning Pruitt’s extravagant demands, the New York Times reported last week.
And as Thursday’s letter to Pruitt states, if the information provided by Chmielewski proves to be accurate, it “leaves us certain that your leadership at EPA has been fraught with numerous and repeated unethical and potentially illegal actions on a wide range of consequential matters that you and some members of your staff directed.”