Ex-aide says he’ll take credit for Pruitt’s downfall

Ex-aide says he’ll take credit for Pruitt’s downfall
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Kevin Chmielewski, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whistleblower who played a central role in Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE’s downfall at the agency, said he feels vindicated by the administrator’s departure.

“I hate to take a credit for a man losing his job, but I guess I’d have to say that I take the credit,” Chmielewski told The Hill on Friday, the day Pruitt left the EPA.

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Chmielewski, who served as deputy chief of staff for operations at the agency during most of Pruitt’s tenure, leaked documents and provided information that prompted investigations into several high-profile scandals, from the retroactive altering of the administrator’s public calendar to a request that staff help him find a condo in Washington.

Chmielewski left the agency in February, saying he was forced out after questioning spending and management practices.

But he didn’t step back after his dismissal. Instead, he guided journalists and environmentalists toward controversies surrounding Pruitt by recommending which agency documents to seek out via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

“I’ve put the breadcrumbs where they had to go and pointed to the FOIAs — the FOIAs have been 99.9 percent of it,” Chmielewski said. “They’ve all come back, and in a lot of cases they were worse than I even knew about.”

He called the public records — released in batches over the past few months — the silent hero behind Pruitt’s departure. Many of those documents were made available as a result of a Sierra Club lawsuit that challenged the agency for missing a legal deadline to produce the records and essentially forced the agency to provide almost 60,000 pages of documents, many of which backed up reports already circulating about Pruitt and how the EPA was run.

"When we didn’t receive responses to our requests, a lawsuit appeared to be the only option for getting the documents, which we -- and the public -- had a right to under the Freedom of Information Act," Sierra Club attorney Elena Saxonhouse said in a statement to The Hill on Sunday. "The documents that were produced made it clear that it was even worse than anyone thought, as they provide evidence not just that polluters were giving Pruitt marching orders, but that he was using his power to enrich himself and live in luxury."

“Under the law these documents should have been forthcoming, but we had to take Pruitt to court to get them, and now it’s clear why,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement in May. “These documents expose a deeply rooted culture of corruption surrounding Scott Pruitt and his dealings in essentially every aspect of his job.”

The records also lent more credibility to Chmielewski’s descriptions of the EPA’s inner workings under Pruitt.

“I’ve been vindicated,” Chmielewski said on Friday. "It's a relief."

For example, emails and itineraries released through FOIA requests backed up Chmielewski’s assertions that Pruitt had ordered staff to retroactively change meetings listed on his public calendar. One of those meetings involved a dinner with Cardinal George Pell during Pruitt’s trip to Italy. Pell was later charged with sexual misconduct. 

A Trump administration official described the string of FOIA documents following the Sierra Club’s lawsuit as “the silver bullet” that ended Pruitt.

Chmielewski, the lifelong Republican and former Trump campaign advance man whom Trump once brought on stage to thank during a rally, became a polarizing figure berated by conservatives after he spoke out against the administration.

The EPA regularly referred to him as a “disgruntled” employee, and his outspokenness made him an outcast in the Republican political world as well, leaving him to look for employment outside of Washington. The former merchant mariner currently works part-time at Sunset Grille and Teasers Bar in Ocean City, Md., where he now lives.

But he’ll be back in Washington this week, when he’s slated to testify in front of lawmakers as part of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s investigation into Pruitt’s spending.

Speaking a day after Pruitt’s resignation was announced, Chmielewski said he was still a bit surprised to hear the news because of how resilient Pruitt had been amid multiple scandals, particularly the latest one about the calendar alterations.

“If it didn’t happen this week, there was nothing else the guy couldn’t do,” Chmielewski said, adding that he had already been asking himself, “What more does this guy have to do” to get fired?