The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to be in a state of massive upheaval following the departure of several aides and new allegations against the agency’s embattled administrator, Scott Pruitt.
Four officials at the agency have stepped down in the past week, an exodus that has deprived Pruitt of some of his closest aides.
Meanwhile, several new controversies have exploded around Pruitt regarding his travel and his ties to lobbyists.
People with knowledge of the departures at EPA likened them to getting out of Dodge, either due to impending investigations or simply a desire to escape a tumultuous work environment. One source described the offices at EPA as “eerily quiet” this week.
The first resignation came Tuesday, when Albert Kelly, a close friend of Pruitt’s who was hired to lead the EPA’s Superfund program, announced his departure.
The week before Kelly’s resignation, two Democratic House members had asked EPA’s inspector general to investigate Kelly’s qualifications and “unexplained red flags.” Once someone leaves government employment, the inspector general’s office cannot compel someone to comply with an investigation.
Lawmakers became interested in Kelly after it emerged in December that he had been banned for life from working in the banking sector. Reports also asserted that Kelly had helped get Pruitt financing for a mortgage and to buy a minor league baseball team.
Tuesday also brought the departure of Pruitt’s head of security, Pasquale Perrotta, a career official who previously worked at the Secret Service. He said he was leaving the EPA because press coverage was taking a toll on his family.
Perrotta’s resignation came the day before he was to testify in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is looking into various incidents at the EPA.
Perrotta had been under the microscope for decisions he’d made as Pruitt’s security chief as well as reports that he used his power to influence a number of EPA security contracts, including an April 2017 security sweep in the administrator’s office completed by his business partner at an outside security group.
EPA’s Office of Inspector General announced in late April that they were investigating Pruitt’s “use of staff and expenditures for security measures.”
Kevin Chmielewski, a former EPA political aide turned whistleblower, alleged to lawmakers in early April that Perrotta retaliated against him at EPA when he had pushed back on Pruitt’s travel expenses.
Chmielewski told lawmakers that in February he returned from a work trip to Japan to find his office locked and credentials revoked. Perrotta later called him, he said, and demanded he also return his parking pass, saying he would personally go to Chmielewski’s home to forcibly retrieve it.
By the end of the week, members of Pruitt’s communications team were also jumping ship.
On Thursday, Pruitt’s top public affairs official, Liz Bowman, announced she was leaving the agency to join Sen. Joni Ernst’s (R-Iowa) communications department on Capitol Hill.
She would not say how long the move had been planned, but said “it was time.”
The next day, the press office’s second in command, John Konkus, announced he was also leaving, this time to take a position at the Small Business Administration.
Konkus had previously been named in a report as the EPA staffer tasked with sifting through EPA grant awards to make sure they didn’t conflict with the Trump administration’s deregulatory goals.
Pruitt’s tenure has been marked by controversy, a storm of accusations that he denounced in congressional testimony as “fiction” concocted by his opponents.
Among other things, Pruitt has faced scrutiny for frequently traveling first class on business trips, for utilizing a round-the-clock security team even on personal trips and for renting a room from the wife of a then-lobbyist in Washington.
When lawmakers pressed him about those accusations and others in his late April testimony, Pruitt often shifted blame to top aides and denied knowledge of things that were done on his behalf — including significant raises given to two EPA aides who came to D.C. with Pruitt from Oklahoma, where he had been attorney general.
Since the testimony, the EPA has faced a new onslaught of negative headlines. Reports have broadly asserted that Pruitt and EPA political aides had planned multiple foreign trips for the administrator with help from lobbyists and consultants who had business interests abroad.
Amid the negative headlines and staff turnover, The Atlantic reported that Michael Abboud, a member of the EPA’s press team, had been shopping a negative story about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in an attempt to take the heat off Pruitt. A source with knowledge of the reported incident confirmed to The Hill that Abboud was pitching the negative story.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox has called the report “categorically false.”
Abboud previously worked at America Rising, a conservative opposition research group. He’s also related to Andy Abboud, senior vice president of government relations and community development for billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corporation. Adelson is a prominent Republican donor.
Adelson figured predominantly in helping Pruitt plan a scheduled February trip to Israel, the Washington Post reported late Thursday. The trip was canceled after controversy erupted over Pruitt’s use of first-class air travel.
Andy Abboud confirmed to the Post his own involvement in planning Pruitt’s Israel agenda.
A House Democratic aide said that it would be hard to tell just how lawmakers will respond to the latest events once they come back from recess Monday, but suggested the latest developments have cast a cloud over Pruitt’s testimony in late April. Specifically, the aide pointed out that Pruitt had testified that the agency did not retaliate against internal whistleblowers, despite Chmielewski alleging the contrary, and had said his real estate dealings with lobbyists weren’t serious, despite new reports that he had once co-owned a home with one.
“If we were in the majority now, we’d be accusing him of perjury,” the aide said.
BY MIRANDA GREEN – 05/06/18 06:00 AM EDT
Timothy Cama contributed to this report.