Energy & Environment

Dems: Former Pruitt aide alleges more wasteful spending, retaliation at EPA

A former top aide to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is accusing him of extravagant spending, unnecessary security, employee retaliation and more, according to congressional Democrats.

Kevin Chmielewski, who was formerly Pruitt's deputy chief of staff for operations, spoke this week to both Democratic and Republican congressional staff and, according to them, corroborated much of the recent reporting about Pruitt's spending and ethics controversies while providing some new details. 

"Mr. Chmielewski provided new details and corroborated other reports regarding allegations of wasteful spending of taxpayer funds and your disregard for the ethical and legal requirements of your position," Democratic Sens. Tom Carper (Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Reps. Elijah Cummings (Md.), Gerry Connolly (Va.) and Don Beyer (Va.) wrote to Pruitt on Thursday.

"Mr. Chmielewski described an environment in which you sought to marginalize, remove or otherwise retaliate against agency employees who advised you not to take these troubling actions, or refused to take or justify such actions at your direction," they wrote.

Chmielewski was put on leave from the EPA earlier this year, in what he said was retaliation for questioning or pushing back on Pruitt's decisions.

Chmielewski was a campaign aide to President Trump before his time at the EPA, and Trump once brought him on stage at a campaign rally to thank him for his work. 

The former EPA aide met with Senate and House Democratic staffers Wednesday. He returned to Capitol Hill Thursday to speak with Republican staff on the House Oversight Committee, a committee spokesperson confirmed to The Hill.

Carper is the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Cummings is the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The Democrats also sent a copy of the letter directly to Trump.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the agency "will respond to members of Congress through the proper channel."

During his briefing with the GOP committee staff, Chmielewski confirmed much of what he told the Democrats, the committee spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said the GOP staff found Chmielewski to be "very credible" and that they were "impressed by the amount of information he was able to share."

The spokesperson said the committee hopes that next steps will be done in a bi-partisan way. GOP members of the House Oversight committee, including Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C), were not alerted to the Democrat's interview with Chmielewski until reports surfaced Wednesday.

Gowdy has opened up two investigations into Pruitt, for his use of first class travel and his $50 a night condo rental from the wife of an energy lobbyist.

After The New York Times reported on many of the allegations last week, Wilcox said they came from "a group of disgruntled employees who have either been dismissed or reassigned."

Pruitt has been under from both Republicans and Democrats in recent weeks over ethics allegations, including that he paid $50 for each night he slept at a condo owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist and directed pay raises for two aides despite the White House refusing to approve them.

In their six-page letter, the Democrats lay out a host of new allegations against Pruitt and asked for various documents and pieces of information about them.

The allegations include that the EPA paid for bulletproof locks and weapons, biometric locks, new SUVs for Pruitt's travel and a $30,000 contract with private Italian security officers for his trip there. 

Pruitt far exceeded the $5,000 limit to redecorate his office, Chmielewski said, and he often made his security staff use lights and sirens to speed through Washington, D.C., including in residential neighborhoods.

Chmielewski said he was in EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson's office once and heard a phone conversation with J. Steven Hart, an energy lobbyist whose wife, Vicki, was Pruitt's landlady. Hart alleged that Pruitt hadn't paid him rent and that Pruitt's adult daughter damaged hardwood floors in the apartment.

A spokesman for the Harts disputed Chmielewski's charges.

"As the landlord, Vicki Hart was the only person who handled rent payments. The rent was paid in full and the hardwood floors were never damaged," said Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the couple.

Pruitt's travel destinations were based on a desire to visit certain cities or countries, and he sometimes asked aides to find him official business to do there, according to Chmielewski. He also asked staff to ensure he could get to his home in Oklahoma on the weekends by finding trips near there. 

Chmielewski said he pushed back on many of Pruitt's requests. But he says his refusal to retroactively approve a first-class ticket for then-Pruitt aide Samantha Dravis to return from Morocco in December appears to have been what made Pruitt want to remove him from his job. 

Updated at 3:22 p.m.