In early March, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt approached the White House with a request: He wanted substantial pay raises for two of his closest aides.
The aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, were part of the small group of staffers who had traveled with Pruitt to Washington from Oklahoma, where he had served as attorney general. Greenwalt, a 30-year-old who had worked as Pruitt’s general counsel in Oklahoma, was now his senior counsel at the EPA. Hupp, 26, was working on his political team before she moved to D.C. to become the agency’s scheduling director.
Pruitt asked that Greenwalt’s salary be raised from $107,435 to $164,200; Hupp’s, from $86,460 to $114,590. Because both women were political appointees, he needed the White House to sign-off on their new pay.
According to a source with direct knowledge of the meeting, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, staffers from the Presidential Personnel Office dismissed Pruitt’s application. The White House, the source said, declined to approve the raises.
So Pruitt found another way.
A provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act allows the EPA administrator to hire up to 30 people into the agency, without White House or congressional approval. The provision, meant to help expedite the hiring of experts and allow for more flexible staffing, became law in 1996. In past administrations, it has been used to hire specialists into custom-made roles in especially stressed offices, according to Bob Perciasepe, a former acting EPA administrator.
After the White House rejected their request, Pruitt’s team studied the particulars of the Safe Drinking Water provision, according to the source with direct knowledge of these events. By reappointing Greenwalt and Hupp under this authority, they learned, Pruitt could exercise total control over their contracts and grant the raises on his own.
Pruitt ordered it done. Though Hupp and Greenwalt’s duties did not change, the agency began processing them for raises of $28,130 and $56,765, respectively, compared with their 2017 salaries. Less than two weeks after Pruitt had approached the White House, according to time-stamped Human Resources documents shared with The Atlantic, the paperwork was finished.
Word of the raises quickly began to circulate through the agency. The episode infuriated some staffers; to some political aides, it was evidence of Pruitt’s disregard for the White House’s warnings to cabinet officials that they avoid even the appearance of impropriety. It also underscored the administrator’s tendency to play favorites among his staff, according to two sources with direct knowledge of agency dynamics. Hupp, in particular, is making more than her Obama-era predecessor, a five-year veteran of the agency who did not break six figures until the final year of the administration, according to public records. (While Greenwalt has no obvious peer in the Obama administration, the EPA’s general counsel had an annual salary of $155,500 in 2016.)
Said one EPA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press: “This whole thing has completely gutted any morale I had left to put up with this place.”
“The Safe Drinking Water Act provides the EPA with broad authority to appoint scientific, engineering, professional, legal, and administrative positions within EPA without regard to the civil service laws. This is clear authority that has been relied on by previous administrations,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement. “The Administrator was not aware that these personnel actions had not been submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office. So, the Administrator has directed that they be submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office for review.”
The White House did not return requests for comment.