President Donald Trump's head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has been caught lying about one of the many ethical scandals plaguing the office during his tenure.
During an interview with Fox News' Ed Henry on Wednesday, Pruitt denied any knowledge of the more than $80,000 in pay raises given to two of his staffers. The pay raises were controversial because they had been denied by the White House but were given to the staffers anyway, with Pruitt taking advantage of a provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act intended to help with hiring new employees. Now questions have emerged as to whether Pruitt abused his authority when he allegedly use that hiring provision to reward favored staffers, prompting him to deny that he had been aware of the pay raises at the time.
"My staff did and I found out about that yesterday and I changed it," Pruitt told Henry. When he was asked if someone would be fired over it, Pruitt insisted that "there will be some accountability on that" and that the agency is "in the process of finding out how it took place and correcting that."
He also insisted that he had been uninformed about the raises, telling Henry that he "did not know that they got the pay raises until yesterday."
A new report in The Atlantic contradicts Pruitt's assertion.
In the last few days, top staffers became aware of an email exchange between one of two aides who received such a raise and the agency’s human resources division. In mid-March, Sarah Greenwalt, senior counsel to the administrator, wrote to HR in an attempt to confirm that her pay raise of $56,765 was being processed. Greenwalt "definitively stated that Pruitt approves and was supportive of her getting a raise," according to an administration official who has seen the email chain.
A second administration official confirmed the exchange. The email "essentially says, ‘The administrator said that I should get this raise,’" the official told me. Both spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private correspondence.
Pruitt's chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, backed up Pruitt's story, explaining in a statement that "Administrator Pruitt had zero knowledge of the amount of the raises, nor the process by which they transpired. These kind of personnel actions are handled by myself, EPA’s HR officials and PPO. These kind of personnel actions are handled by EPA’s HR officials, PPO and me. Any communications claiming otherwise are simply inaccurate."
Efforts are underway to test the truthfulness of Pruitt's and Jackson's statements. Two Democratic members of the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, have added to the pressure on Pruitt by asking him to provide them with all relevant documents and communications pertaining to the raises given to Greenwalt and the other favored employee, Milton Hupp, by April 20.
These developments do not seem to be bothering many of Pruitt's top advisers, however, as one official told The Atlantic that they have been "gloating" about how Trump's outspoken support for Pruitt makes him "bulletproof." Jackson, Greenwalt and Hupp were also reported to have joked that, like Trump, Pruitt could "stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone" and "get away with it," although they are also worried that the email could disrupt Pruitt's seemingly secure position.
Trump's unwavering support for Pruitt seems rooted in the fact that the EPA head is his favorite to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Because Trump is angry at Sessions for recusing himself from the Trump-Russia investigation, the president has been seeking an opportunity to replace him with someone deemed to be more loyal. Pruitt, who served as attorney general of Oklahoma, is perceived by Trump as just such a person, and as a result Trump has resisted calls from advisers like Chief of Staff John Kelly to fire Pruitt.
This is in spite of the fact that Pruitt has had scandals well beyond the controversial pay raises. David Apol, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, has already informed the agency that it is expected to take "appropriate actions to address any violations" pertaining to matters such as Pruitt renting a condo co-owned by a major energy lobbyist's wife for only $50 per night, using taxpayer money to visit his home in Oklahoma and allegedly punishing staffers who spoke out against the ethical violations.
"The success of our government depends on maintaining the trust of the people we serve. The American public needs to have confidence that ethics violations, as well as the appearance of ethics violations, are investigated and appropriately addressed," Apol explained in the letter address to the EPA's top ethics official Kevin Minoli, according to The New York Times.
He had particularly harsh words about the alleged mistreatment of staffers who spoke out against the ethical issues.
"If true, it is hard to imagine any action that could more effectively undermine an agency’s integrity than punishing or marginalizing employees who strive to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations that safeguard that integrity," Apol wrote.