EPA removed a career staffer Tuesday who approved an internal report that undermined Administrator Scott Pruitt’s claims that he needed around-the-clock bodyguards and other expensive security protection, according to two former agency employees familiar with the situation.
Mario Caraballo was the deputy associate administrator of EPA’s Office of Homeland Security, which in February concluded that an earlier assessment failed to identify credible direct threats against the administrator that would justify his heavy security spending.
Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) wrote to Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) on Tuesday requesting oversight hearings and quoting the report, making public its doubts about the need for the heightened security.
One source with direct knowledge of Caraballo’s dismissal said the agency claimed he was let go because of a personnel issue from a previous military job nearly a decade ago that had been resolved then and already been reviewed by EPA several years ago. That source said senior officials also were not happy with the report from Caraballo’s office.
“They’re trying right now to just keep pressure on the wound,” the source said. “They’re trying to find out where these leaks are coming from … They’re in full panic mode right now.”
EPA Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Donna Vizian said the agency would not comment on personnel matters. But she added that today’s action “was based on a recommendation by the Office of Administration and Resources Management. I am not aware of any connection between the personnel matter and the document mentioned in media reports.”
A career EPA staffer who has worked with Caraballo described him as a “standout manager,” and a “veteran and dedicated public servant and intelligence official to boot.”
The source predicted Caraballo’s dismissal would stiffen the resolve of Pruitt’s critics within the agency.
“This isn’t going to frighten staff, this is going to embolden us to leak more to get these criminals out,” the employee said Tuesday. “They need to know we’re not intimidated and we’re going to blow the whistle on anything even borderline questionable.”
In their letter to Barrasso, the two Senate Democrats said the records from the EPA, Secret Service and a terrorism task force fail to justify Pruitt’s use of the multimillion-dollar security detail.
Instead, according to the internal EPA memo, the “threats” include protesters attempting to disrupt one of Pruitt’s closed-door speeches, a letter from a prisoner, and a postcard that included the greeting: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL!!! We are watching you,” Carper and Whitehouse wrote to Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).
The two Democrats demanded oversight hearings into Pruitt’s security spending, citing an internal EPA review, Secret Service threat assessments and a Joint Terrorism Task Force report.
But Barrasso rejected their request, while bashing the two Democrats for releasing “sensitive information.”
“I am deeply troubled that members of the committee would publicly release lawenforcement sensitive information regarding the safety and security of a cabinet member and his family,” Barrasso said in a statement. “This letter selectively quotes non-public documents.”
Barrasso added that “any reasonable reading” of those documents supported a conclusion that Pruitt faced a “variety of direct death threats.”
To the contrary, Carper and Whitehouse said the Secret Service identified no “reports of behaviors of interest” against Pruitt, and internal EPA reviews dispute “the administrator’s claims that the nature of the threats against him justify his expenditures.”
Pruitt has drawn widespread scrutiny for demanding a round-the-clock security detail, flying first-class to limit contact with threatening passengers, and having a soundproof booth installed in his office, among other steps — all of which offered far greater protection and privacy than his predecessors received. The Associated Press, citing an unnamed EPA official, said last week Pruitt’s “total security costs approached $3 million when pay is added to travel expenses.”
EPA has said Pruitt has experienced a sharp increase in threats compared with his immediate predecessor, Obama-era Administrator Gina McCarthy. Among specific incidents, the agency said one person had approached Pruitt in the Atlanta airport while yelling, “Scott Pruitt, you’re f—ing up the environment.”
In one of the nonpublic documents Carper and Whitehouse cited, the EPA Office of Homeland Security‘s intelligence team concluded that an earlier threat assessment prepared by Pruitt’s security team “DOES NOT employ sound analysis or articulate relevant ‘threat specific’ information appropriate to draw any resource or level of threat conclusions regarding the protection posture for the administrator,” according to a section of the Feb. 14 memo reproduced in the senators’ letter (emphasis included). The memo concluded that EPA intelligence officials had “not identified any specific credible direct threat to the EPA administrator,” according to the letter.
None of the incidents listed concern air travel, according to the letter.
The senators said the records don’t match public statements from EPA and President Donald Trump, who tweeted Saturday that Pruitt’s expenses are justified.
One view is “that certain factions within EPA have justified the exorbitant taxpayer spending incurred by the administrator’s first-class travel and large entourage of security personnel through unsubstantiated claims about threats to his security, either at the direction of the administrator himself or others in the agency,” the senators said.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said Tuesday that “Scott Pruitt has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats against him and these threat assessments are conducted within [Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance] using information collected from the [Protective Service Detail], EPA’s Office of Homeland Security, and Inspector General.“ He pointed to interviews with EPA’s inspector general office discussing an increase in threats compared to the previous administrator’s tenure.