ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE/WASHINGTON (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump said on Thursday (April 5) he would take a look into ethics allegations against Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt over his condo lease and other issues, but added the official was doing a "fantastic job".
Mr Pruitt has loyally executed Mr Trump's deregulatory agenda with plans to roll back Obama-era programmes cutting emissions from power plants and vehicles.
His efforts to slash regulations have helped make Mr Trump popular in coal, natural gas, and oil-producing states.
"I think that Scott has done a fantastic job," Mr Trump told reporters on Air Force One after a trip to West Virginia. "I just left coal and energy country. They love Scott Pruitt."
Still, Mr Trump said he would make a determination about the ethics issues. The White House is probing Mr Pruitt's lease of a room in a high-end Washington neighbourhood for US$50 (S$65.83) a night in a townhouse co-owned by the wife of energy industry lobbyist Steven Hart, who lobbies for companies regulated by the EPA.
Mr Pruitt has told the Washington Examiner in an interview that he was "dumbfounded" his renting of the room in a townhouse was controversial and said his ethics officials reviewed the lease.
But the EPA's ethics office suggested there still could be questions about Mr Pruitt's housing arrangement.
Mr Pruitt, a vocal doubter of mainstream climate change science, also is facing criticism for frequent first-class air travel, spending on costly items in his office, including a US$43,000 soundproof telephone booth, and for a trip to Morocco in which he promoted US exports of liquefied natural gas.
While Mr Trump appears to support Mr Pruitt, the President can be fickle. Last autumn, Mr Trump said he had confidence in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, even after their relationship was strained by differences of opinion on Iran and Russia policy. Mr Trump fired Tillerson in March.
In late March, the EPA's ethics office cleared Mr Pruitt of accepting an illegal gift from a lobbyist with the condo lease, saying a number of other rooms nearby were available for rent for a similar or lower price.
But the office issued a memo, dated on Wednesday and seen by Reuters, that the earlier review did not consider whether Mr Pruitt had violated other ethics rules with the lease.
Mr Kevin Minoli, a top ethics official in the EPA's Office of General Counsel, said in the memo that the review did not address issues such as a rule requiring officials to avoid behaviour that could result in their impartiality being questioned.
"It is important to note that the federal ethics regulations regarding impartiality apply regardless of whether something involves receiving a prohibited gift," he wrote.
In a separate statement about the memo, Mr Minoli said it explained the ethical issues beyond the scope of the original review.
The impartiality rule requires that government officials avoid doing things that could create an "appearance of favouritism in government decision-making," according to the US Office of Government Ethics.
In the memo, first reported by CNN, Mr Minoli also said he did not have access to enough information to determine whether Mr Pruitt's actual use of the townhouse was consistent with the lease.
Mr Trump's support for Mr Pruitt, which he also voiced on Tuesday, comes even as US lawmakers, including three fellow Republicans, called for his resignation over the ethics questions.
More questions surfaced as Mr Trump commented on Mr Pruitt.
Five EPA officials were reassigned, demoted or requested new jobs over the past year after they complained about Mr Pruitt's spending, a report by the New York Times said.
The concerns included unusually large spending on office furniture and first-class travel, as well as certain demands by Mr Pruitt for security coverage, such as requests for a bulletproof vehicle and an expanded 20-person protective detail, according to people who worked for or with the EPA and have direct knowledge of the situation.
Mr Pruitt bristled when the officials - four career EPA employees and one Trump administration political appointee - confronted him, said the people who were not authorised to speak publicly
The political appointee, Mr Kevin Chmielewski, was placed on administrative leave without pay, according to two of the people with knowledge of the situation.
Mr Chmielewski was among the first employees of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, serving as a senior advance official. The two people, who are administration officials, said Mr Chmielewski flagged some of his concerns about Mr Pruitt directly to the White House's presidential personnel office.
Two of the career officials, Mr Reginald Allen and Mr Eric Weese, were moved to jobs where they had less say in spending decisions and less interaction with Mr Pruitt, the people said.
A third career official, Mr John Reeder, joined American University as a temporary "executive in residence" after being told by the EPA to find a new job. And a John Martin, who served on the security detail, was also removed from the team and had his gun and badge taken away after raising concerns about how Mr Pruitt's security was being handled.
A sixth official, Mr Pruitt's chief of staff, Mr Ryan Jackson, also raised questions about Mr Pruitt's spending, according to three EPA officials. He remains in his job but is considering resigning, agency officials said.
Mr Jackson came to the agency from the office of Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, who like Mr Pruitt had been a major critic of regulatory moves made under President Barack Obama, and is a prominent climate change sceptic.
Approval was required by the staff officials for certain of Mr Pruitt's expenditures, and Mr Allen, Mr Chmielewski, Mr Jackson and Mr Reeder at various points each voiced concerns to Mr Pruitt directly about his spending, according to the two administration officials.
Neither Mr Jackson nor any of the five officials who left or were removed after questioning Mr Pruitt would comment when contacted by The New York Times.
Before their reassignments or removals, Mr Weese was the head of Mr Pruitt's protective detail, and Mr Reeder, Mr Allen and Mr Chmielewski each served as deputy chief of staff.
The White House declined to comment on Thursdaybut Mr Trump described Mr Pruitt as "very courageous".
The EPA challenged the assertion that the reassignments were related to objections to spending and other management issues.
"We dispute the veracity of the accusations," said Mr Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the agency.
Several current and former EPA employees said morale at the agency had suffered as they watched the friction play out between Mr Pruitt and the officials.
Mr Christopher Zarba, a career EPA employee who retired in February after leading the agency's scientific advisory boards, said it was well known in the office that Mr Allen had been sidelined for challenging Mr Pruitt.
"Brilliant, a natural leader, an off-the-charts-talented guy," Mr Zarba said of Mr Allen. "He had to push back on Pruitt on some of the trip and office modification expenses to keep everything legal, and we speculated he might have been removed for that reason."
A senior political appointee, who came to the agency with the Trump administration and works on policy issues, offered a defense of Mr Chmielewski: "Kevin is one of the most upstanding public servants and nicest all-around people. Just because he stood up to what was clearly a bad idea, they are trying to sabotage the poor guy's reputation."
Mr Pruitt declined to be interviewede, but he has spoken with conservative media organisations.
In those interviews, he has cried foul about a flurry of media reports about his regular first-class travel, his use of an obscure administrative provision to increase the salaries of two favoured aides (over White House objections) and his below-market rental agreement for the condo.
The disclosures, he has suggested, were the handiwork of critics who were resorting to personal attacks to derail the deregulatory agenda being pursued by his agency and the Trump administration.
Yet the revelations about his staff turnover, which have not been previously reported, demonstrate that concerns about his spending and leadership resonated within his own team well before they became the subject of media reports and investigations by the EPA inspector general and the White House.
Agency records obtained through open-records requests show the critical role that Mr Allen, Mr Chmielewski and Mr Reeder played in reviewing Mr Pruitt's travel plans.
In some instances, several agency officials said, pushback by the officials prevailed. For instance, in a conversation with one of Mr Pruitt's closest aides, Mr Chmielewski sharply objected to a proposal to buy a US$100,000-a-month charter aircraft membership that would have allowed Mr Pruitt to take unlimited private jet trips for official business, according to two administration officials. The membership was not purchased.
Mr Chmielewski also objected to a proposal to spend about US$70,000 to replace two desks in Mr Pruitt's office suite, including his personal desk and one at a security station outside his office.
Asked about the proposed desk purchases, Mr Wilcox, the EPA spokesman, said that "the administrator never considered the proposal."
Mr Pasquale Perrotta, who became head of Mr Pruitt's security detail after Mr Weese was removed, insisted that the security desk be upgraded to a bulletproof model, according to current and former EPA employees with direct knowledge of the discussions. The bulletproof security desk was not purchased, but two new desks were ordered for Mr Pruitt's personal office: a brown maple wood stand-up desk, with brass locks, that was purchased from a craftsman and an oversize desk with ornate woodworking that had been in a federal government warehouse in Virginia and was refurbished for Mr Pruitt at a cost of US$2,075.
EPA employees gawked at the size and grandeur of Mr Pruitt's refurbished desk, with some comparing it to the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, officials said in interviews.
Still, Mr Pruitt and his team obtained many of the perks he wanted. Staff members questioned, but nonetheless approved, frequent trips that routed Mr Pruitt through hub airports that allowed him to spend weekends at his home in Oklahoma.
The administrator also had charter flights approved after they were already taken, the public records show.
"This memorandum responds to your request for written approval for the Administrator and three EPA employees to use a charter service to fly from Denver to Durango, CO on August 4, 2017," read a memo written in late August, after the trip was completed.
The approval covered a charter flight to tour the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, after Mr Pruitt's commercial flight to Denver was delayed.
This 40-minute flight cost US$5,719, the records show.
Other memos released through the open-records law show that Mr Allen handled requests for renovations to Mr Pruitt's office.
"I spoke to Gayle and we can proceed as it is not part of the US$5,000," read an e-mail to Mr Allen in April 2017, as staff members were being pressed to find a way to spend more on office renovations than was allowed under federal guidelines.
In this case, the expenditure involved a biometric lock and was not counted against Mr Pruitt's furniture budget.
"Approved," Mr Allen wrote back.
The documents do not reflect the behind-the-scenes friction between Mr Pruitt and the senior officials, but several agency staff members said in interviews that they avoided putting objections into writing because they suspected there would ultimately be an investigation into the matters.
Mr Weese, the security official, questioned Mr Pruitt's desire to use flashing lights and sirens in his motorcade - a perk more commonly associated with the presidency - according to three of the people who worked with or for the EPA.
Mr Pruitt, who often ran late, wanted to use the lights and sirens to expedite local trips in Washington to the airport or to dinner, including at least one trip to Le Diplomate, a trendy French restaurant he frequented.
Such use was not consistent with agency policy, but Mr Weese was unsuccessful in stopping it.
The agency said Mr Pruitt played no role in deciding when the sirens and lights would be used.
"The security detail for the past 15 years has used them in very limited fashion," Mr Wilcox said.
Mr Weese was reluctant to sign off on requests for Mr Pruitt to travel in first class based on security concerns.
Mr Allen, Mr Chmielewski and Mr Reeder, too, questioned the use of taxpayer money to pay for first-class airfare.
Only after Mr Weese was replaced by Mr Perrotta did Mr Pruitt regularly fly first class, agency staff members said.
There were also questions raised about a request that Mr Pruitt be issued a bulletproof SUV with run flat tires, which keep a vehicle moving even when sustaining gunfire.
And they challenged Mr Pruitt's expanded security detail of approximately 20 members, three times the size of his predecessor's.
Unlike his most recent counterpart under Mr Obama, Ms Gina McCarthy, Mr Pruitt has security officials follow him wherever he travels, and also stay on duty overnight.
"He wanted to be treated like he was the President," said Mr David Schnare, a prominent conservative lawyer and climate change sceptic, who served on the Trump administration transition team at the EPA, after an earlier 30-year stint at the agency that started in the late 1970s.
Mr Wilcox, the agency spokesman, said the larger security team was justified, given threats against Mr Pruitt.
"They run the variety of direct death threats - 'I'm going to put a bullet in your brain' - to implied threats - 'If you don't classify this particular chemical in this particular way, I'm going to hurt you.'"
There was a particularly intense dispute over a request to construct a special security booth in Mr Pruitt's office so he could have confidential conversations without being overheard by career agency employees, according to interviews and public documents first reported by The Washington Post.
Mr Chmielewski suggested converting a broom closet at a cost of about US$10,000, one person who worked with the agency said. But Mr Perrotta wanted a special chamber with sound-dampening privacy products and ceiling baffles that would prevent anyone from intercepting voice or data transmissions.
The documents show that the final cost of the new chamber was close to US$43,000. Mr Perrotta also remains an executive at a private security firm, Sequoia Security Group, which separately received a contract from the EPA to conduct a security sweep of Mr Pruitt's office, a deal that is now the subject of an investigation by the agency's inspector general.
He did not respond to a request for comment. strong
The various challenges to Mr Pruitt's spending and security priorities did not sit well with him, according to the people who worked with or for the EPA, and soon the offending aides were removed.
Mr Allen, a decorated 30-year retired Army officer, was transferred to a different office within the EPA, where he mostly works alone, according to two agency officials, one of whom described the setup as "an unmarked grave".
Mr Weese was transferred from the security detail to a more general position in the agency's criminal investigation division. Mr Reeder remains an employee of the EPA while on temporary leave to work at American University.
He has been a senior executive at the agency since early in Mr George W. Bush's presidency, but left for American University after many of his responsibilities were taken away from him.
Mr Martin, who served on Mr Pruitt's security detail, raised concerns about Mr Perrotta and matters related to Mr Pruitt's security arrangements, such as the soundproof booth.
He was then told he could no longer be part of the security detail, which he had been a part-time member of for more than a decade, according to two people with knowledge of the events.
Mr Martin became the target of an inquiry by the agency's inspector general, which ultimately cleared him of wrongdoing, according to documents reviewed by The Times.
The removal of Mr Chmielewski, the former Trump campaign official, proved more complicated. As a presidential appointee, Mr Chmielewski was classified as a member of the senior executive service pay system, and remained in close contact with top aides to both Mr Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Even while at the EPA, Mr Chmielewski helped facilitate trips for Mr Pence and sometimes travelled with him. And he had a personal connection with Mr Trump, who had called him to the podium during a campaign rally in April 2016 in Maryland, where Mr Chmielewski grew up.
"Where the hell is Kevin?" Mr Trump said at the event. "He's a star. Where is Kevin? Get Kevin up here."
Some internal agency memos detailing Mr Pruitt's travel plans list Mr Chmielewski as the coordinator, and as the senior political appointee, he had to ensure that they were properly authorised.
Privately, he urged Mr Pruitt to rein in his spending, initially in person, and then through intermediaries when he got frozen out, according to the two administration officials. When Mr Chmielewski returned from a trip to Asia with Mr Pence in February, he was asked to resign and turn in his credentials.
Mr Pruitt's aides informed the White House that they were dissatisfied with Mr Chmielewski's unresponsiveness during his travels, including a time when he could not be reached in Hawaii, where he was preparing for a visit by Mr Pence.
An anonymous complaint filed with the EPA's inspector general alleged that Mr Chmielewski could not get the appropriate level of security clearance for his duties because of various indiscretions.
After a brief investigation, the inspector general dismissed all the allegations in the complaint as unfounded, according to documents reviewed by The Times.
Mr Chmielewski told associates that he believed the complaints were an effort by Mr Perrotta and others to discredit him. Separately, Mr Chmielewski has been the subject of allegations that he was the source of leaks about Mr Pruitt, and also that he was staying free in the same Capitol Hill home where Mr Corey Lewandowski, Mr Trump's first campaign manager, lives.
Someone familiar with the arrangement acknowledged that Mr Chmielewski, a longtime friend of Mr Lewandowski, had slept at the home, but said it was only one night and on a couch.
The crescendo of criticism of Mr Pruitt has rallied his defenders, including the Tea Party Patriots and the Heritage Foundation, who in recent days have blasted out endorsements of his management of the agency on social media and in opinion columns.
It has also empowered his critics, even from within his own Republican Party.
Mr William K. Reilly, who led the EPA under President George Bush, called Mr Pruitt a "third-rate ideologue" and said he was aware of staff members who had been sidelined at the agency for raising questions about Mr Pruitt's spending.
"I think he's well beyond his sell-by date," Mr Reilly said. "Any administration but this one would have discharged him long ago."