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Former aides describe culture of fear under Pruitt

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By Miranda Green, The Hill

Succeeding at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) meant keeping your head down, your opinions to yourself and never saying no to the boss, according to three former staffers who worked under Administrator Scott Pruitt.

[post_ads]They described working conditions under Pruitt, who announced his resignation Thursday, as equally tense and thankless and blamed the EPA chief for creating a culture of fear that often pitted employees against one another and left some workers -many under the age of 30 - feeling as if they couldn't say no the administrator.

"You get the sense that anyone who would push back on him, he didn't want around. So the message has been sent loud and clear that the only way you can succeed in that office is if you do exactly what he wants," one former aide, speaking before Pruitt's resignation, told The Hill.

The descriptions provided by former staffers paint a picture of an agency where political staffers were driven foremost by their desire to please Pruitt and help him appear competent - a task made increasingly difficult as a towering number of controversies surrounding him.

The controversies ultimately led to his resignation. President Trump, commenting to reporters on Air Force One, said Pruitt did not want to be a distraction.

Pruitt was facing 13 federal investigations into his various expenses and management practices at the EPA, including his rental of a $50-per-night Capitol Hill condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist and his use of first-class travel during his first year on the job.

Last week, a top EPA ethics official urged the agency's Inspector General to investigate new allegations against Pruitt that include reports that he asked employees to help him with his housing search and find a job for his wife, the New York Times first reported.

Younger employees found it hard to turn down Pruitt's requests, staffers told The Hill. Some also didn't have the experience to know that what they were being asked of was ethically questionable.

"You notice that the vast number of people working for him are under 32," said the aide, who asked to speak on background in order to speak candidly about the EPA. "He doesn't want anyone who he feels sufficiently competitive or competent who would contradict him or threaten him."

Another former senior staffer contrasted Pruitt from Trump, saying working for the EPA boss was largely thankless - even for people who went out of their way to help him.

The senior staffer said Pruitt almost never thanked, commended or acknowledged his employee's work.

"That's the difference between Pruitt and Trump. Trump rewards loyalty, but Pruitt couldn't care less," the former senior staffer said.

Four EPA political aides resigned between May and June.

The former aide said the staff resignations were telling: "There is no such thing as a Scott Pruitt alumni network."

Pruitt's own resignation followed reports this week that the agency had asked political aides to retroactively change details on the official EPA calendar.

Former aide Madeline Morris told The New York Times she believed she was fired last August from the EPA after voicing concern that changes made to his official calendar - largely related to Pruitt's trip to Italy - were unlawful.
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EPA whistleblower Kevin Chmielewski, who also talked to The Hill about the working environment at EPA, confirmed that he was personally involved in firing Morris due to her resistance to changing the calendar.

Chmielewski said it was typical of staffers to be "retaliated against and re-assigned."

He also pointed to former Pruitt aides Millan Hupp and her sister, Sydney Hupp as examples of young employees caught up in controversies because of unreasonable requests by Pruitt. Both are in their 20s and came from Oklahoma, where Pruitt had served as attorney general, to work with him in Washington.

"If you look at everything that is happening it's 26, 27-year-old kids who came from Oklahoma. It's their first time out in the big city, they are very new to the business and they just assumed that they were able to do it because Pruitt said it," Chmielewski told The Hill.

An spokesman for the EPA defended Pruitt's leadership style early Thursday, saying in a statement that the administrator was focused on his regulatory work for the administration.

"From advocating to leave the Paris Accord, working to repeal Obama's Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, declaring a war on lead and cleaning up toxic Superfund sites, Administrator Pruitt is focused on advancing President Trump's agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship," the spokesperson said in a statement.

Pruitt himself has defended his actions during multiple congressional hearings this year where he often shifted the blame to EPA career staff for signing off his office's $43,000 soundproof booth, and the media for spreading a false narrative.

"Those who have attacked the EPA and attacked me are doing so because they want to derail the president's agenda. I'm not going to let that happen," Pruitt told members of the House Energy and Commerce environment subcommittee in April. "A lie doesn't become true just because it appears on the front page of the newspaper."

During a Senate Appropriations hearing in May, Pruitt took a more conciliatory tone, telling members, "There have been decisions over the last 16 or so months that, as I look back on those decisions, I would not make the same decisions again."

Chmielewski says he was fired from the EPA earlier this year after pushing back on a number of Pruitt's first class travel requests and international trips. He previously told The Hill that days before Pruitt officially joined the EPA, he had asked Sydney Hupp, his senior scheduler at the time, to arrange hotels for his family members to stay at while visiting Washington, D.C.

Chmielewski said Hupp later came to him and Pruitt's chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, asking to be reimbursed for the expense that she had to pay for personally.

"She literally went to Ryan and said, 'Look, Pruitt needs to pay me back for this. It was $600 bucks.' And Ryan took six $100 dollar bills out of his pocket," Chmielewski recalled.

Jackson and both Hupps did not return a request for comment.

Chmielewski said Pruitt routinely asked Millan Hupp to get him coffees or books, which she also paid for personally.

[post_ads]Millan Hupp told congressional investigators in May that she also helped Pruitt on a months-long search for a Washington, D.C., based apartment at his request, working a number of hours on the clock and on the weekends. Her personal errands for Pruitt extended to helping him try to buy a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. and she said she also routinely helped him book personal travel, including a trip he took in the winter to see the Rose Bowl game. She used Pruitt's personal credit card, which she said she always had on hand, to book the flight.

After being approved for a nearly 33 percent raise in the spring, and then having it reversed following news reports on it, Millan resigned as Pruitt's scheduler in early June.

Former staffers said Pruitt's expectations extended into their daily EPA meetings, where employees often clamored to agree with the administrator. They feared being pushed out of his tight inner circle if their opinions rubbed him the wrong way - something easy to deduce based on who was invited to dine or travel with him.

"Working for him, if you're young, means always needing to be careful about sharing your actual opinion with him," said the former aide.

The former aide said it was clear to everyone who Pruitt liked and disliked based on his interactions with them at the morning meetings.

"He would frown, or roll his eyes or just wave away whatever it is you said - he generally just waves his hand away saying I don't care," the former employee recalled.

Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt's deputy administrator, will begin leading EPA Monday.

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