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Pruitt aide wrote memo to absolve him in controversy over raises
A top aide to former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt wrote a memo earlier this year that appeared to be aimed at absolving Pruitt of blame over a controversial raise given to the aide.
Internal EPA documents obtained Wednesday by The Hill offer more details surrounding one of many spending and ethics scandals weighing on Pruitt before his departure in July.
It also provides more fodder to critics who say there is lingering corruption at the EPA.
Sarah Greenwalt, who was Pruitt's senior attorney before she resigned in June, received a significant pay increase in March to $164,200, from $107,435, shortly after the White House rejected the EPA's bid to give her a raise. At the time, Pruitt's chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, used a special procedure under the Safe Drinking Water Act to give her a pay raise without needing White House approval, as well a big raise to Millan Hupp, Pruitt's scheduler at the time.
Greenwalt's and Hupp's raises were especially controversial because both women were close aides who had worked for Pruitt in his previous job as Oklahoma's attorney general.
Hupp, whose salary went to $114,590 from $86,460, told congressional investigators that she helped him with personal tasks like finding apartments and trying to buy a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel. In a Senate hearing, Pruitt called Hupp "a longtime friend of my wife and myself."
After The Atlantic broke the news of those raises on April 3, Pruitt denied that he was aware of them, despite a previously reported email Greenwalt wrote in February to a human resources official at the EPA, saying that her salary boost had been "previously discussed with the Administrator."
The email seemed to implicate Pruitt and differed with his April 4 interview on Fox News, in which he claimed to have "found out about it yesterday."
But in a previously unreported memo to Jackson dated April 9, Greenwalt appeared to try to clean up the mess, saying she had discussed taking on new responsibilities with Pruitt in January and getting a raise, but not the specific salary or what method Jackson would use to implement it.
"At the time that promotion was discussed, I asked generally if that would encompass an increase in salary commensurate with the increase in responsibility and portfolio," Greenwalt wrote. "At no time was there ever a discussion with the Administrator as to what the new salary would be, or the process by which that salary would be determined."
It's unclear from the documents if Pruitt or Jackson - who stayed at EPA after Pruitt's departure as Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler's chief of staff - instructed Greenwalt to write the memo.
The EPA didn't respond to a request for comment, nor did the Oklahoma Workers Compensation Commission, where Greenwalt now works as general counsel.
The memo came the same day that The Atlantic published a new story reporting that Greenwalt had sent the February email.
Also on that day, President Trump brought up the scandals in a White House meeting with Pruitt and other administration officials that was intended to be about ethanol policy, according to The Washington Post. He said at the meeting that Pruitt had a "rough week," and asked him to "cool it," the Post reported.
Pruitt's later statements about the controversial raises align more closely with Greenwalt's memo than with comments made during the Fox interview.
"I was not aware of the amount," Pruitt told House lawmakers later in April. "Nor was I aware of the bypassing or the [White House Presidential Personnel Office] process not being respected."
The day after Greenwalt wrote her memo, Jackson also put out a statement saying he was responsible for the raises. The EPA released a document showing that Pruitt had delegated hiring authority, including authority to use the Safe Drinking Water Act hiring, to Jackson.
Pruitt also reversed the raises after The Atlantic's initial report.
The Sierra Club, which has helped expose many of Pruitt's scandals through Freedom of Information Act requests, said the memo serves as a reminder of the role that Pruitt staffers who are still at the agency - such as Jackson - played in some of the scandals.
"Andrew Wheeler is running an EPA that includes Pruitt staff who have accommodated and covered up deep corruption and abuse of taxpayer dollars," spokesman Adam Beitman said.
"The fact that he tolerates that in order to push the fossil fuel industry's agenda shows that his disrespect for the public is as extraordinary as Pruitt's."
- Updated on Aug. 31.