WASHINGTON — 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 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 EPA and have direct knowledge of the situation.
Pruitt bristled when the officials — four career EPA employees and one Trump administration political appointee — confronted him, the people said.
The political appointee, Kevin Chmielewski, was placed on administrative leave without pay, according to two of the people with knowledge of the situation. Chmielewski was among the first employees of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, serving as a senior advance official. The two people, who are administration officials, said Chmielewski flagged some of his concerns about Pruitt directly to the White House’s presidential personnel office.
Two of the career officials, Reginald E. Allen and Eric Weese, were moved to jobs where they had less say in spending decisions and less interaction with Pruitt, the people said. A third career official, John E. Reeder, joined American University as a temporary “executive in residence” after being told by the EPA to find a new job. And a John C. Martin, who served on the security detail, was also removed from the team and had his gun and badge taken away after raising concerns about how Pruitt’s security was being handled.
A sixth official, Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, also raised questions about Pruitt’s spending, according to three EPA officials. He remains in his job but is considering resigning, agency officials said. Jackson came to the agency from the office of Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who like Pruitt had been a major critic of regulatory moves made under President Barack Obama, and is a prominent climate change skeptic.
Approval was required by the staff officials for certain of Pruitt’s expenditures, and Allen, Chmielewski, Jackson and Reeder at various points each voiced concerns to Pruitt directly about his spending, according to the two administration officials.
Neither Jackson nor any of the five officials who left or were removed after questioning Pruitt would comment when contacted by The New York Times. Before their reassignments or removals, Weese was the head of Pruitt’s protective detail, and Reeder, Allen and Chmielewski each served as deputy chief of staff.
The White House declined to comment Thursday, referring questions to the EPA, though Trump, as he boarded Air Force One, said he had confidence in Pruitt.
And in speaking to reporters on the plane, he described Pruitt as “very courageous,” while suggesting he was reviewing the complaints about him. “I’ll make that determination,” Trump said. “But he’s a good man, he’s done a terrific job. But I’ll take a look at it.”
The EPA challenged the assertion that the reassignments were related to objections to spending and other management issues. “We dispute the veracity of the accusations,” said Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the agency.
The staff tumult comes to light as Pruitt’s stewardship of the agency is under mounting scrutiny. He is the subject of an investigation by the EPA’s inspector general, who is examining some of the spending and security issues. The White House confirmed Wednesday that it was conducting its own examination.
Pruitt declined to be interviewed for this article, but he has spoken with conservative media organizations. In those interviews, he has cried foul about a flurry of media reports about his regular first-class travel, his use of an obscure administrative provision to increase the salaries of two favored aides (over White House objections) and his below-market rental agreement for accommodations in Washington with an energy lobbyist whose clients won favorable treatment from the EPA.
Yet the revelations about his staff turnover, which have not been previously reported, demonstrate that concerns about his spending and leadership resonated within his own team well before they became the subject of media reports and investigations by the EPA inspector general and the White House.
Agency records obtained through open-records requests show the critical role that Allen, Chmielewski and Reeder played in reviewing Pruitt’s travel plans. In some instances, several agency officials said, pushback by the officials prevailed.
For instance, in a conversation with one of Pruitt’s closest aides, Chmielewski sharply objected to a proposal to buy a $100,000-a-month charter aircraft membership that would have allowed Pruitt to take unlimited private jet trips for official business, according to two administration officials. The membership was not purchased.
Chmielewski also objected to a proposal to spend about $70,000 to replace two desks in Pruitt’s office suite, including his personal desk and one at a security station outside his office. Asked about the proposed desk purchases, Wilcox, the EPA spokesman, said that “the administrator never considered the proposal.” Pasquale Perrotta, who became head of Pruitt’s security detail after Weese was removed, insisted that the security desk be upgraded to a bulletproof model, according to current and former EPA employees with direct knowledge of the discussions.
Still, Pruitt and his team obtained many of the perks he wanted. Staff members questioned, but nonetheless approved, frequent trips that routed Pruitt through hub airports that allowed him to spend weekends at his home in Oklahoma. The administrator also had charter flights approved after they were already taken, the public records show.
Other memos released through the open-records law show that Allen handled requests for renovations to Pruitt’s office.
The documents do not reflect the behind-the-scenes friction between Pruitt and the senior officials, but several agency staff members said in interviews that they avoided putting objections into writing because they suspected there would ultimately be an investigation into the matters.
Weese, the security official, questioned Pruitt’s desire to use flashing lights and sirens in his motorcade — a perk more commonly associated with the presidency — according to three of the people who worked with or for the EPA.
Allen, Chmielewski and Reeder, too, questioned the use of taxpayer money to pay for first-class airfare. Only after Weese was replaced by Perrotta did Pruitt regularly fly first class, agency staff members said.
There were also questions raised about a request that Pruitt be issued a bulletproof SUV with run flat tires, which keep a vehicle moving even when sustaining gunfire. And they challenged Pruitt’s expanded security detail of approximately 20 members, three times the size of his predecessor’s.
“He wanted to be treated like he was the president,” said David Schnare, a prominent conservative lawyer and climate change skeptic, who served on the Trump administration transition team at the EPA, after an earlier 30-year stint at the agency that started in the late 1970s.
The crescendo of criticism of Pruitt has rallied his defenders, including the Tea Party Patriots and the Heritage Foundation, who in recent days have blasted out endorsements of his management of the agency on social media and in opinion columns. It has also empowered his critics, even from within his own Republican Party.
William K. Reilly, who led the EPA under President George Bush, called Pruitt a “third-rate ideologue” and said he was aware of staff members who had been sidelined at the agency for raising questions about Pruitt’s spending.
“I think he’s well beyond his sell-by date,” Reilly said. “Any administration but this one would have discharged him long ago.”
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