by Michael Bastasch
Democrats mischaracterized emails between top Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials to claim Administrator Scott Pruitt wanted “misuse” of taxpayer dollars by creating a new agency office in his hometown.
Pruitt directed his staff “to establish a new EPA office in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma,” sparking a wave of media coverage that added to the growing list of complaints against Pruitt, House Democrats claimed.
“This most recent case of questionable financial management adds to the growing concerns about Administrator Pruitt’s misuse of taxpayers’ funds and potential ethical lapses in judgement,” alleged House Democrats, led by Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson.
However, The Daily Caller News Foundation reviewed emails that show Pruitt asked EPA officials to find a place “where he could work” when he was home in Oklahoma, not “questionable financial management” as Democrats suggest.
EPA officials asked questions about how Pruitt could periodically work from his hometown, Tulsa, in a way consistent with past administrators, utilizing existing office setups or working with federal officials to find suitable office space, emails show.
Pruitt is under fire for alleged overspending and ethical lapses, including flying first class at taxpayers’ expense and renting a room from the wife of a D.C. lobbyist. Congress and EPA’s Office of Inspector General have investigations into Pruitt’s actions.
House Democrats are claiming Pruitt wanted to put his own convenience over taxpayers’ money by establishing an EPA office in his hometown.
Democrats based their claim on emails from EPA officials, including Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, who at the time was still working for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Democrats sent letters to EPA and the General Services Administration (GSA), demanding documents regarding apparent efforts to create a new EPA office in Pruitt’s hometown.
“Establishing a new EPA office in Tulsa may be personally convenient for you, but it seems ethically questionable, professionally unnecessary, and financially unjustified,” Democrats wrote to Pruitt.
Democrats were also concerned EPA officials requested potential office space have “a conference room, secure parking space, and a Secure Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF).” Democrats cited the recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision that EPA’s $43,000 secure phone booth violated federal law.
However, TheDCNF reviewed emails that suggest Democrats mischaracterized Pruitt’s request. Democrats never disclosed how they came across the emails; nor did they release any to the public.
TheDCNF obtained emails that likely encompassed those cited by Democrats based on descriptions detailed in their letters to EPA and GSA. Democrats’ letter described two emails sent in January and February of 2017.
What the emails do show is Pruitt asked Jackson “where he could work” while home in Oklahoma.
Emails sent primarily between Jackson and Senior Policy Advisor James Blizzard show the two working to find Pruitt office space to rent while he was in Oklahoma, where his family and permanent residence are.
Jackson asked Senior Policy Advisor James Blizzard if the Office of Administration and Resources Management and GSA “could put their heads together and get something prepared for him.” Blizzard provided Jackson with a solution in a follow-up email sent Jan. 31, 2017.
Pruitt would need an “episodic telework agreement” so he could periodically conduct official business while in Tulsa, Blizzard said. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has a similar arrangement, Blizzard suggested.
Blizzard suggested “other Federal [sic] agencies with office space in Tulsa, or even Congressional [sic] space,” though the latter was ruled out due to “optics” issues. Jackson would “rather keep it official and in some GSA space,” the senior policy advisor told Blizzard in a Jan. 31 email.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Land Management had offices in downtown Tulsa, the two noted. Blizzard eventually got in touch with someone at GSA and asked Jackson what specifications were needed for Pruitt’s Tulsa work space. Jackson gave Blizzard a list of specifics:
On Feb. 1, 2017, Blizzard got the “wheels in motion,” he told Jackson, by emailing GSA’s Saul Japson with details on what kind of federal office space they were looking for and offering to connect the “proper folks” at both agencies to move the process along.
The “federal building was full, but [GSA] have identified space in a GSA-leased building that could work, Blizzard told EPA acting Chief of Staff John Reeder that same day. He relayed a similar message to Jackson a few days later.
Reeder asked Blizzard who was representing Pruitt because leasing office space before he was confirmed by the Senate “can be tricky.” The Senate confirmed Pruitt on Feb. 17, and it’s unknown whether EPA and GSA moved forward on finding office space.
EPA told CNN, which reported on the Democrats’ letters, the agency had a small office space in Tulsa for two employees, though Pruitt never used it.
“Since 2012, there is an EPA office in Tulsa for two EPA employees when they need to work remotely,” Spokesman Jahan Wilcox told CNN. “This location is not practical or usable for Administrator Pruitt’s business, and he has never used this office.”
Read the entire email chain between Jackson and other officials here.
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