We now know what the energy lobbyist who rented Scott Pruitt a cheap room wanted in return

Lobbyist who rented Pruitt his sweetheart apartment asked him to appoint 3 corporate clients to the EPA

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 2, 2018 11:19AM (EDT)

Scott Pruitt (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Scott Pruitt (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Scott Pruitt's top aides are resigning as a number of ethical scandals have tarnished President Donald Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, who is the subject of 11 federal investigations, just lost two of his top aides as a result of the ethics scandals that continue to embroil the department under his watch. We now know what the energy lobbyist who rented Pruitt a sweetheart apartment wanted in return.

One of the staffers to leave is Albert Kelly, who was in charge of the EPA's Superfund program that is charged with cleaning up hazardous waste sites, according to The New York Times. Kelly's appointment had been controversial from the beginning, due to his inexperience in dealing with hazardous waste cleanup. It was then revealed that Kelly had been the chair of SpiritBank when the institution, using a shell company, provided Pruitt a home mortgage in 2003. After he was found to have committed a banking violation (the exact nature of which has not been publicly disclosed), Kelly was banned from involvement in the financial industry last year.

Despite this controversy, Pruitt (who has a long history of friendship with Kelly) said that the departing EPA staffer "will be sorely missed" and claimed that "in just over a year he has made a tremendous impact on E.P.A.’s Superfund program, serving as chair of the Superfund Task Force and presiding over the development of the steps necessary to implement the recommendations in the report."

Another staffer who is heading out the door is Pasquale Perrotta, who had served as chief of security for Pruitt. The former Secret Service agent was officially charged with leading Pruitt's protective detail, but he has become immersed in controversy because he approved exorbitant spending on Pruitt's supposed security needs. As the Times reports:

It was Mr. Perrotta, those people said, who pushed for the construction of the $43,000 surveillance-proof telephone booth in Mr. Pruitt’s office in Washington, over the objections of colleagues who had advocated a less expensive option.

Mr. Perrotta emboldened Mr. Pruitt by signing off on security enhancements or travel-related expenditures to which other agency officials had objected, said Kevin Chmielewski, a political appointee who served as Mr. Pruitt’s deputy chief of staff until ​being removed from his post this year after raising objections to some of the spending at the agency.

Mr. Perrotta "has been with the agency for a very long time, so he knew how to get things done for Pruitt," Mr. Chmielewski said.

"Nino Perrotta has selflessly served the American people for more than 23 years, beginning his career as a special agent with the United States Secret Service and then serving four E.P.A. administrators," Pruitt declared after Perrotta stepped down. "His hard work and dedication will be missed by all those who worked with him."

These two resignations come at an inauspicious time for Pruitt, who has been striving to repair his public image as more and more reports emerge of potentially unethical activity on his part. This included spending $25,000 on a soundproof booth in his office, well beyond what many felt could have been reasonably stated as a necessary expense. He has also been harshly criticized for spending much of his first year in Washington D.C. at a townhouse co-owned by Vicki Hart, the wife of top energy lobbyist J. Steven Hart. As the Times reported, the unusually affordable rate Pruitt received for renting the property does seem to have posed a conflict of interest for the EPA head to live there:

Also on Tuesday, new details emerged about the lobbying of the E.P.A. by J. Steven Hart, the lobbyist whose wife had last year rented a $50-a-night condo to Mr. Pruitt. Congressional investigators on Tuesday provided The New York Times with an email in which Mr. Hart asked Mr. Pruitt for help in getting three people appointed to the E.P.A.’s prestigious Science Advisory Board. They had been recommended by Smithfield Foods, a company that was a client of Mr. Hart’s lobbying firm , and its Smithfield Foundation, a charitable subsidiary.

The email was sent in August 2017, a few weeks after Mr. Pruitt had moved out of the apartment, but at a time when he still owed money to Mr. Hart’s wife.

Pruitt has also been accused of retaliating against EPA employees who have spoken out against potentially unethical practices:

At least five officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, four of them high-ranking, were reassigned or demoted, or requested new jobs in the past year after they raised concerns about the spending and management of the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt.

The concerns included unusually large spending on office furniture and first-class travel, as well as certain demands by Mr. Pruitt for security coverage, such as requests for a bulletproof vehicle and an expanded 20-person protective detail, according to people who worked for or with the E.P.A. and have direct knowledge of the situation.

By contrast, Pruitt has been accused of giving unethical pay raises to two of his favored employees, despite the White House ordering him not to do so. An email uncovered by The Atlantic last month seemed to contradict Pruitt's claim that he had not approved the pay raises himself.

Even aside from the ethics-related scandals that have afflicted the EPA under Pruitt's tenure, the former Oklahoma attorney general has found himself under fire for other reasons. In October it came out that Pruitt had spent nearly every day of his time as the head of the agency meeting with energy executives, even though these were the very industries that Pruitt was supposed to be regulating

Last month, Pruitt also announced that he was going to make it more difficult for scientific research to be used to shape EPA policy. He justified this by saying that he would only allow research to be used if the underlying data was made available to the public, a reasonable-seeming requirement that becomes considerably less logical when you take into account how scientific studies are often conducted. As The Washington Post explained at the time:

Scientists often collect personal data from subjects but pledge to keep it confidential. Researchers will have trouble recruiting study participants if the rule is enacted, she predicted, even if they pledge to redact private information before handing it over to the government.

Despite these controversies, last month Trump had made it clear that he did not wish to get rid of Pruitt. In large part this is because he views the besieged EPA head as a possible replacement for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with whom Trump has had a falling out as a result of Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. At the same time, Pruitt withered when he faced a congressional grilling late last month, one in which he was blatantly called out as unfit to hold public office.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Donald Trump Environmental Protection Agency Epa Scott Pruitt Scott Pruitt Corruption