House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said Friday he’s expanding his probe into the alleged ethical and spending abuses by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt one day after his staff met for several hours with a former EPA aide who was pushed out of the agency.
Gowdy’s latest letter is a further sign of the deepening bipartisan scrutiny facing President Donald Trump’s environmental chief, whose critics accuse him of excessive spending on travel, vehicles, staff raises and luxe security features such as a $43,000 soundproof phone booth.
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The committee’s new request focuses on the decision to increase Pruitt’s security to round-the-clock protection, contracts to sweep Pruitt’s office for electronic surveillance, his trips to Italy and Morocco, the hiring of an Italian security firm, and travel by Pruitt’s security chief Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta.
The letter comes after the committee interviewed ousted EPA employee and former Trump campaign aide Kevin Chmielewski, who is being treated as a whistleblower. A committee spokeswoman said the information he provided is consistent with allegations laid out in a letter released Thursday by House and Senate Democrats who had also spoken to him.
The committee also asked for sit-down interviews with four senior EPA officials: Perrotta; Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff; Millan Hupp, a scheduling and advance aide; and Sarah Greenwalt, a senior counsel to Pruitt. Gowdy requested the agency schedule those interviews and provide a litany of documents by April 27. Gowdy also requested an on-the-record interview with Chmielewski, who spoke more informally with lawmakers this week.
Hupp and Greenwalt, both of whom have worked for Pruitt since he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, are the two staffers who received raises via a special authority granted Pruitt under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Pruitt told Fox News last week he was not aware of the raises, although Chmielewski told Democrats this week that the raises were “100 percent Pruitt himself.”
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the agency had “responded to Chairman Gowdy’s inquiries and we will continue to work with him.”
EPA’s inspector general is also investigating complaints about Pruitt’s travel spending and other practices. The inspector general’s office said it will release an interim report Monday afternoon on one of its probes, which involves whether Pruitt misused special hiring authority provided by the Safe Drinking Water Act to bring some key aides into the agency.
It’s unclear whether the IG has expanded that probe to include a recent controversy around EPA’s use of the same water law to grant raises to the two Pruitt aides despite the White House’s disapproval.
Chmielewski told Democrats this week that EPA fired him after he refused to sign off retroactively on first-class travel for one of Pruitt’s closest aides, Samantha Dravis. Gowdy’s letter does not request an interview with Dravis, who has announced her intent to leave the agency.
During congressional interviews earlier this week, Chmielewski outlined a detailed litany of seemingly unethical behavior against Pruitt. He said the EPA chief insisted on staying at expensive hotels while traveling even if they exceeded permissible federal spending limits, directed staff to book him on Delta Air Lines so he could accrue frequent flier miles, made a close aide “act as a personal real estate representative” and then retaliated against staff who questioned his behavior, among other allegations.
EPA has previously dismissed Chmielewski as one of a “group of disgruntled employees who have either been dismissed or reassigned.” The agency did not immediately comment on the latest letter.
Gowdy’s probe into Pruitt’s activities has been in contrast to his GOP colleagues who have adopted a “wait and see” approach toward the EPA chief’s ethical woes. Lawmakers this week expressed discomfort with Pruitt’s spending when asked and vowed to press him about it at future hearings. But they’ve stopped short of demanding documents or issuing subpoenas to investigate the alleged ethics lapses.
Pruitt last appeared before Congress in late January before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Unlike his fellow Cabinet members, he has yet to appear before any congressional committees to defend his fiscal 2019 budget request. And he’s not scheduled to return to Capitol Hill for another two weeks, when he is scheduled to attend an April 26 session with the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“The Republicans are absolving themselves of all oversight responsibility even in the face of the most egregious conduct. They may as well stop calling committees oversight,” Melanie Sloan, senior adviser at American Oversight, told POLITICO. “What would it take? Would he literally have to kill somebody before they say it’s a problem?”
GOP lawmakers were less patient with Obama EPA officials. Senate and House lawmakers questioned former Administrators Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy, as well as other senior brass, on issues ranging from the use of nonofficial email accounts, whether they used texting to avoid record-keeping requirements, whether they allowed a senior staffer to commit time fraud and why they hadn’t fired employees who spent hours watching pornography at work more quickly.
EPW Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has said he planned to await the results of a White House review of Pruitt’s conduct and would not comment on multiple occasions this week on when the administrator would return to his committee.
“He was just here earlier this year and answered questions for two-and-a-half hours, but I expect him to come back again,” Barrasso told reporters.