A former top EPA staffer has told Democratic lawmakers that the agency fired him after he refused to retroactively approve the first-class travel of one of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s closest aides, according to letters made public Thursday.
The dismissed political appointee, Kevin Chmielewski, also alleged that Pruitt flouted price limits on hotel stays and office decor, put an aide to work house-hunting for him, arranged taxpayer-funded trips to his native Oklahoma and other destinations just because he wanted to travel there and lied last week when he denied knowing about backdoor raises the agency had granted to two of his top aides, the lawmakers said Thursday in a letter to the agency.
In addition, Chmielewski detailed allegations of lavish spending on Pruitt’s personal security and a possible conflict of interest involving his top bodyguard, as well a $100,000-per-month private jet rental that he says EPA looked into at Pruitt’s direction. He also said, as POLITICO reported last week, that Pruitt was frequently late in paying the $50-a-night rent on his lobbyist-owned Capitol Hill condo last year.
The lawmakers, including Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), separately wrote to President Donald Trump and urged him to rethink his public support for the embattled EPA chief.
“… [I]t appears you may not have received all the facts surrounding Administrator Pruitt’s spending, security arrangements, travel, living arrangements, and personnel actions, among other things,” they wrote.
Carper and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) separately asked EPA’s inspector general on Thursday to look into Pruitt’s alleged use of four different email accounts at EPA, and whether federal record-keeping laws were followed.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox declined to specifically dispute the allegations from Chmielewski outlined in the letter, saying the agency would respond to the lawmakers “through the proper channel.” When Chmielewski’s dismissal was first reported last week, Wilcox called him one of “a group of disgruntled employees who have either been dismissed or reassigned.”
Chmielewski, a former Trump campaign staffer, was EPA’s deputy chief of staff for operations and handled many of Pruitt’s travel and logistics coordination. He has emerged as the best-known internal agency critic of Pruitt’s lavish spending and other practices, which have led lawmakers of both parties — and key White House aides — to push for the administrator’s firing.
Among his specific charges, Chmielewski told the lawmakers this week that Pruitt had requested that his aide Samantha Dravis, the head of EPA’s Office of Policy, join him in first class on a return flight from Morocco in December, where Pruitt had gone to promote U.S. natural gas.
Chmielewski told the lawmakers he refused to sign paperwork justifying Dravis’ first-class travel “because it violated federal travel regulations,” the Democrats wrote. He said another EPA staffer eventually signed off on the travel retroactively.
Chmielewski said his refusal to bless Dravis’ upgraded travel “appears to him to have been the final straw that caused you to remove him,” the lawmakers wrote to Pruitt. Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, subsequently informed Chmielewski that Pruitt “wished to fire or reassign him,” they wrote.
Dravis disputed Chmielewski’s allegations, telling POLITICO that she never spoke with him about the upgrade approval, that she did not request the upgrade and that it was not approved retroactively. Dravis said she flew coach for three of the four legs of the trip, and was upgraded to business class for one of them in keeping with federal regulations about travel exceeding 14 hours.
Democrats and environmental groups have questioned the entire purpose of the Morocco trip, noting that EPA’s mission doesn’t include promoting U.S. natural gas exports. Energy Secretary Rick Perry declined to weigh in on that issue at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Thursday, saying it would be “a little inappropriate for me to be making a public or private observation” about whether Pruitt’s trip was justified.
Chmielewski also disputed Pruitt’s statement last week to Fox News that he did not know about raises that two of his aides, who had accompanied him to EPA from Oklahoma, received despite the White House’s disapproval. Pruitt told Fox that the raises were entirely carried out by unidentified staffers, and that he was correcting the matter after learning of it.
But Chmielewski said the raises were “100% Pruitt himself,” according to a quote included in the Democrats’ letter.
Chmielewski told the lawmakers that his dismissal came in February when the head of Pruitt’s security detail, Nino Perrotta, asked him to give up his government credentials when he returned to the agency after an unrelated overseas trip with Vice President Mike Pence.
According to the letter, Jackson told Chmielewski that Pruitt wanted him removed and one of the Oklahoma aides, Millan Hupp, promoted to his job and pay scale. Chmielewski said the White House would not approve of that arrangement, but that he later was removed and Hupp received the promotion and pay raise via special hiring authority in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Other allegations made by Chmielewski, according to the letters, include:
— Pruitt’s security detail has purchased bulletproof vests, weapons and biometric locks and new SUVs to transport Pruitt, as opposed to getting vehicles via the General Services Administration. Chmielewski also alleges EPA has awarded security contracts to at least one person who works at the private security firm run by Perrotta.
— Pruitt had Hupp search for housing during work hours.
— Pruitt spent more than the $5,000 legal limit to redecorate his office.
— EPA staff, at Pruitt’s direction, considered a $100,000-per month private jet rental for the administrator. Chmielewski “claimed he successfully prevented this from occurring, as it would have been far in excess of the total travel budget of the office,” the Democrats wrote.
— Pruitt allegedly sought to travel to certain destinations and would ask EPA staff to find official business there to justify the taxpayer-funded trips. Chmielewski also says Pruitt told staff to find official reasons for him to be in or near Oklahoma to spend long weekends at home there.
— Pruitt “frequently” stayed in pricey hotels that exceeded allowable per diem spending, and that while Pruitt was reimbursed even when costs went over a 300 percent cap for exceptional circumstances, his bodyguards sometimes were not.
— Pruitt declined to plan to stay at hotels recommended by U.S. embassies during two planned international trips, choosing instead “more expensive hotels with fewer standard security resources.”
“The new information provided by Mr. Chmielewski, if accurate, leaves us certain that your leadership at EPA has been fraught with numerous and repeated unethical and potentially illegal actions on a wide range of consequential matters that you and some members of your staff directed,” the lawmakers wrote to Pruitt in asking for more documents.
Besides Carper and Whitehouse, the letters were signed by Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.).