Two senators and three congressmen on Thursday wrote to President Donald Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt with a lengthy list of questions and a lengthier list of the evidence that prompted them.
The impetus: New information from Kevin Chmielewski, former deputy chief of staff for operations at the EPA and a former campaign aide to President Donald Trump.
Chmielewski, the lawmakers said, had laid everything on the table in a meeting with their staffs.
The result is a catalogue of allegations against Pruitt and senior EPA leadership, some new and some old, that together paint a picture of a Cabinet official more interested in exerting his power than doing his job.
Pruitt, Chmielewski alleged, spent unnecessary thousands on office furniture, hotels, at least one new SUV and flights to arbitrary events “dictated by [Pruitt’s] desire to visit particular cities or countries rather than official business.”
Pruitt was also concerned about his frequent flier miles: Chmielewski, the letter says, stated that Pruitt directed his staff “to book flights on Delta, even when they are not the federal government’s contract carrier for the route, because you want to accrue more frequent flier miles.”
The letter, which quotes Chmielewski throughout, also focuses on the chief of security Pruitt hired to lead his sprawling and expensive detail. That man, Nino Perrotta, is portrayed as an all-purpose fixer unafraid of getting his hands dirty, for a price.
Yet another twist emerged later on Thursday: ProPublica reported that Chmielewski, whose ouster was previously examined by the New York Times, never filed his required financial disclosure form. Experts told the publication the omission was highly unusual, given how long Chmielewski worked in the Trump administration in various capacities.
Still, Chmielewski’s claims to lawmakers offer a valuable window into the EPA, and, in particular, the retribution faced by those who have objected to Pruitt’s behavior. Just as Chmielewski was sidelined after challenging Pruitt’s spending habits, he claims others were, as well, including the the Director of the EPA’s Office of Administrative and Executive Services and Pruitt’s own chief of staff.
Chmielewski confirmed a number of reports that lawmakers were already looking into, including that Pruitt had insisted upon expensive office gear and travel accommodations, frequently regardless of whether the additional expense was in the public’s interest.
Pruitt, Chmielewski said, used an EPA staffer as a personal real-estate representative, employed sirens with his motorcade to cut through D.C. traffic, exceeded the $5,000 office-decoration limit by tens of thousands of dollars, sought a $100,000 monthly private plane lease and stayed at hotels abroad that were more expensive than allowed by government standards and less secure than those recommended by U.S. Embassies.
The letter also contradicts Pruitt’s claim that he knew nothing of the five-figure raises that two senior aides of his received, via an obscure loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act, after the raises were initially rejected by the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.
The raises, the letter quotes Chmielewski as saying, were “100% Pruitt himself.”
Finally, the letter covers Chmielewski’s knowledge of Pruitt’s sweetheart townhouse deal with a lobbying power couple.
Steven Hart, the well-known lobbyist representing several clients with business before the EPA, at one point called the EPA directly and complained that Pruitt hadn’t paid rent, and that Pruitt’s daughter had damaged the townhouse’s wood floor, according to the letter. Chmielewski said he overheard the call from Hart while in the chief of staff’s office.
Threats and Retribution
Chmielewski claims he was forced out of the EPA (he’s currently on administrative leave or fired, depending on whom you ask) for refusing to retroactively approve a first-class flight home from Morocco in December for Pruitt and Samantha Dravis, the recently departed senior counsel and associate administrator of the EPA’s office of policy.
Though another EPA employee eventually approved the flight, the letter said, Chmielewski claimed that “following his refusal, Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson called Mr. Chmielewski into his office and informed him that [Pruitt] wished to fire or reassign him.”
Chmielewski said he received the same message from the EPA’s White House liaison — that Pruitt wanted him to resign — in February, after Chmielewski returned from a trip to Japan with Vice President Mike Pence.
It was then, Chmielewski claimed, that Pruitt’s head of security threatened him. Upon returning from Japan, according to the letter, Chmielewski received a call. On the line were the White House liaison, Charles Munoz, and Perrotta, Pruitt’s security chief. (Perrotta calls himself “special agent in charge” of Pruitt’s detail. He also runs a private security business, Sequoia Security Group.)
Perotta “said that he was going to go to Mr. Chmielewski’s home and forcibly retrieve his EPA parking pass and that he ‘didn’t give a f—k who is on this call’,” the letter said. Chmielewski told the police, EPA officials, and the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.
The questions from lawmakers contained in Thursday’s letter are just the latest in a series of inquiries about Perrotta and Pruitt’s security detail.
On Monday, two Democratic senators wrote to Pruitt about an internal EPA memo they had reviewed regarding a report that was sent by a member of Pruitt’s security detail to Perrotta. The report detailed several threats that the security detail claimed justified expensive security-related measures, including the need for Pruitt to travel in first class. The internal EPA memo about the report claimed, in short, that the justifications were bunk.
Hours after the senators released their letter to Pruitt, the EPA employee who authorized the memo it described was fired.
Chmielewski also claimed, today’s letter said, that an individual who works for Perrotta’s private security firm had received “at least one security-related contract,” and that “he believes that other contracts may also have been awarded to friends or associates of Mr. Perrotta’s.”
Will The Long List Of Credible Allegations Make An Impact?
It amounts to a stunning list of allegations. Chmielewski’s claims to Democratic legislators may increase pressure on their Republican counterparts with oversight authority to hold hearings on the myriad scandals Pruitt has faced in recent weeks.
Indeed, lawmakers have highlighted the revelations of their own investigations, including whistleblowers’ claims, for weeks. Powerful Republicans like House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) have asked tough questions, as well, as has the Office of Government Ethics.
Yet Pruitt appears, at least publicly, to have the White House’s support, and relevant committee leaders have not called on him or his staff to answer, in person, for the various alleged breaches of the public’s trust.
Chmielewski recalled to the lawmakers that when he started as a Senior Executive Service official at the EPA, Pruitt’s chief of staff told him that “the nightmare is now yours.”
Chmielewski, according to the letter, “said those words turned out to be accurate.”