As EPA Scandals Mount, Scott Pruitt Is Radically Reshaping Agency to Aid Polluters and Big Business

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is again facing a slew of ethics and spending scandals amid mounting calls for his resignation. On Thursday, The Washington Post reported Pruitt enlisted members of his $3.5 million security detail to pick up his dry cleaning and search for his favorite skin moisturizing lotion, even though federal rules prohibit public officials from receiving gifts from subordinates, including unpaid services. Meanwhile, Pruitt is continuing to radically reshape the EPA. The New York Times reports today the EPA has given the chemical industry a big victory by scaling back the way the federal government determines health and safety risks associated with the most dangerous chemicals on the market. Pruitt has also been accused of radically reshaping the EPA rulemaking process and weakening Obama administration efforts to tighten fuel economy standards. We speak to Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is again facing a slew of ethics and spending scandals amidst mounting calls for his resignation. On Thursday, The Washington Post reports Pruitt enlisted members of his $3.5 million security detail to pick up his dry cleaning and search for his favorite skin moisturizing lotion, even though federal rules prohibit public officials from receiving gifts from subordinates, including unpaid services. This comes after congressional transcripts surfaced showing Pruitt had one of his top aides, Millan Hupp, go apartment hunting for him, in violation of federal ethics standards. Hupp was also instructed to try to get Pruitt a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel. After The Washington Post broke the story, Hupp announced her resignation. Her last day is today. Also resigning amidst the mounting scandals is Pruitt’s senior counsel, Sarah Greenwalt, who traveled internationally and across the US with Scott Pruitt as he met with industry officials and foreign diplomats.

Meanwhile, Pruitt has also faced criticism after it surfaced his former scheduler contacted the chief executive of Chick-fil-A, seeking to set up a personal meeting about the possibility of Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn, opening a franchise of the fast-food chain. The revelation is based on emails obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Sierra Club. On Wednesday, journalist Jessica Smith published a video of her questioning Pruitt about the Chick-fil-A scandal.

SCOTT PRUITT: With great change comes, you know, I think, opposition. I mean, there’s significant change that’s happening across—not only at the EPA, but across this administration. And it’s needed. And, look, my wife is an entrepreneur herself. I love, she loves, we love—we—Chick-fil-A is a franchise of faith, and it’s one of the best in the country. And so, that’s something we were very excited about. So—and we need more of them in Tulsa. We need more of them across the country. So, anyway, it’s an exciting time.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times has also reported in recent days, Pruitt attended a University of Kentucky basketball game last December in seats belonging to Joseph W. Craft III, a billionaire coal executive who is aggressively fighting to reverse Obama-era rules limiting coal pollution. All these new scandals come as Pruitt was already facing at least a dozen investigations over spending and ethics violations, ranging from his close ties to industry lobbyists to illegal spending of public money.

Meanwhile, Pruitt is continuing to radically reshape the Environmental Protection Agency. The New York Times reports today the EPA has given the chemical industry a big victory by scaling back the way the federal government determines health and safety risks associated with the most dangerous chemicals on the market. Pruitt has also been accused of radically reshaping the EPA rulemaking process and weakening Obama administration efforts to tighten fuel economy standards, among others.

For more, we’re joined by Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. Last year, Public Citizen launched CorporateCabinet.org, a website tracking the corporate connections and conflicts of interest of Trump’s Cabinet appointees.

But, Rob, today we’re going to focus on Scott Pruitt. We’re going to divide this into two parts. Talk about this slew of scandals, and then we’ll talk about what some consider the greatest scandal, and that is the rolling back of environmental protection. Rob Weissman?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Thanks, Amy. It’s good to be with you and your viewers and listeners.

You know, if you listen to the introduction you just gave, I don’t—Washington is very familiar with people who come and try to self-enrich themselves from the taxpayer pot, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like Scott Pruitt. That list of examples, most of which have just emerged in the last week or two, I don’t think there’s ever been anything like that. And there are more. You know, last week it came out that he was buying $130 pens, because he thinks he needs to write with $130 pens.

And what we’ve seen is a guy who, first of all, has no respect for the taxpayer and his duty to be frugal and guard taxpayer assets, but, more importantly, a guy who thinks that he should live like the billionaires that he’s serving. You know, he’s hanging out with these super-rich people, and he doesn’t see himself any different than them. They get to fly around all over the world whenever they want, to do—you know, on luxury planes, and so should he. And they get to sit at the front row of college basketball games, and so should he. They get to eat in fine restaurants whenever they want without regard to paying, and so should he.

One of the other stories that’s come out in the last couple days is, he’s going over to the White House dining hall so frequently, because there’s great food there at a very low price, sort of luxury-level food at McDonald’s prices, and they told him, “Stop coming. You’re coming here too often.”

And so there’s this unbelievable degree of entitlement and desire for luxury, which is not appropriate for a government official. But I think it does connect to the second strain of what you’re talking about. Part of the reason he thinks he’s entitled to this, besides his own megalomania, is he’s hanging out with people who live like this, and he doesn’t see why he shouldn’t be able to do the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the women who have just resigned, his top aides, lawyer and assistant?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Right. Well, these are people he brought over with him from Oklahoma. He was formerly the Oklahoma attorney general. And he used them, in considerable part, to take care and tend to his personal whims and desires. You know, one of these aides, who was effectively his executive assistant but had a high-level title and a high-paying job, was scheduling his personal trips. You know, he wanted to go to the Rose Bowl, so she worked that out. Then it emerged, as you were saying, in the last few days, she actually was looking for apartments for him. She visited at least 10 apartments, the House Oversight Committee discovered, to try to find one for him, after he got thrown out of the flophouse he had, the super-discount deal from a lobbyist or a lobbyist’s wife.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, explain that. I mean, that deal that he had was staying in the building of an energy lobbyist’s wife, getting a deal from an energy lobbyist, in essence, paying $50 a night when he was there, but the room was held open for him always, the apartment.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, that’s—it’s exactly as you said. So he’s paying $50 a night, which is, let’s say, below market rates here in Washington, D.C. He wasn’t even paying every night. He was only paying for the nights he stayed, and that wasn’t as many as you might think, because he is jetting all around the country and the world to tend to his desires and whims. You know, the discount deal was being provided by a lobbyist couple. The husband had business before the Environmental Protection Agency, which was a fact denied but now revealed—in fact, just revealed in the last few days, as the husband had to change and fully disclose on his lobby forms what he’d been doing.

And there’s just never been anything like this. So, there are some hard ethics questions in Washington, D.C., but none of the things involving Scott Pruitt are hard ethics questions. And again, they’re just startling kinds of misbehavior, but they’re startling kinds of misbehavior that matter, not just because, like, what does he need $130 pens for, but because he’s doing favors for the people who are conferring benefits on him. So he—

AMY GOODMAN: Or three-and-a-half million dollars in security. I want to turn to a postcard addressed to Scott Pruitt, sent to the EPA’s Seattle office last year. The postcard featured an image of a man standing on an iceberg. It read, quote, “Dear Mr. Pruitt, CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL!!! We are watching you. For the sake of our planet, our children & our grandchildren, will you be a reasonable man? I repeat, we are watching you!” It was signed by seven first names of women. Well, this postcard is on the potential list of potential threats to Pruitt’s safety that the EPA used to justify a 24/7 security detail that has cost taxpayers at least three-and-a-half million dollars.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Right. It’s just part of the grandiose story around Scott Pruitt. So, he’s got this 24/7 security detail that former EPA administrators have not had and for which he has no reason. He uses these people to sort of create a bubble around himself when he travels; to put on screaming sirens and take him to his favorite restaurants in Washington, D.C.; to protect him from citizens who might come up to him and complain about what he’s doing; and, as you say, to do weird things, like find his favorite moisturizer.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s turn to this latest news. We’re going to take a break and then come back to it, and that is one of the top headlines today, top story of The New York Times, the Trump administration, after heavy lobbying by the chemical industry, scaling back the way the federal government determines health and safety risks associated with some of the most dangerous chemicals in the market. We’ll be back with Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Anemone” by Brian Jonestown Massacre. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the record of Scott Pruitt. Is he about to resign or be fired? That’s the question. The New York Times reporting today, the EPA has given the chemical industry a big victory by scaling back the way the federal government determines health and safety risks associated with the most dangerous chemicals on the market. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has also been accused of radically reshaping the EPA rulemaking process, weakening Obama administration efforts to tighten fuel economy standards. Still with us, Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen. Rob, talk about this latest news about the chemicals in the air we breathe, in the soil, in the water we drink.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, this is the real outrage. So the stuff we were just talking about, that’s funny for the soap operas, and it is crazy, outrageous, in its way, but it’s not really hurting people in the same way this is.

So this breaking news from The New York Times is that the agency, the EPA, is going to change the way it assesses chemical safety. It’s now looking at beginning a new process, after a recently passed law, of evaluating the safety of chemicals that have long been on the market. It’s looking first at 10, and then it’s going to go on to others. And it’s—the short version is, it’s changing the way it’s going to do it, so that chemicals will be deemed safer than they otherwise would have been. It will be—higher levels of exposure will be possible. More use of dangerous chemicals will be possible.

How did they get there? Well, this is the real scandal at the EPA. The person in charge of the review is an industry chemist who came from the chemical industry trade association. She’s now in charge of setting up the process. So she is delivering for the agency from which she once came.

The impact is going to be on people whose names we don’t yet know, but people will die as a result of this. So when you look at what they’re doing in the chemical industry or how Pruitt and his top aides are benefiting the coal industry or enabling more air pollution or taking care of the agribusiness industry or making sure we’ve got more oil and gas burning going on, he is enabling a kind of corporate violence that will kill literally tens of thousands of people every single year. We don’t know their names, but they will die. He is looking at rolling back, on behalf of the oil and dirty energy industries, an air pollution standard which—one air pollution standard that is expected to save 11,000 lives every year and prevent 130,000 asthma attacks every year. Again, when those things happen, going forward, if he succeeds in rolling back this rule, almost no one is going to go back and say, “Look, it was Scott Pruitt who enabled this. It was the guy, it was the industry that polluted in my neighborhood that forced my child to have an asthma attack.” People don’t think that way, but it is what happens. So it is a crime and a violence that is equivalent to street crime, except that it’s at a much more gigantic scale than anything that the biggest mass murderer could ever hope to accomplish.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to a story we covered last week, officials with the EPA barring multiple journalists from covering a summit on water contamination at the EPA’s D.C. headquarters, with one journalist reporting she was shoved out of the building by security guards. The reporters were from CNN, the Associated Press, E&E News. The journalist who was shoved, Ellen Knickmeyer of AP, was ultimately allowed into the meeting in the afternoon. The meeting was about nationwide water contamination from the chemicals PFOA and PFOS, which are used in Teflon and firefighting foam. The attempt to exclude some journalists from the meeting comes as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who spoke at the meeting, is, of course, facing this slew of scandals around him. We had an extended conversation about this. This is about people trying to get a report released of areas, communities around industrial sites, around military bases, that fear this contamination.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, that’s right. So, the big story at EPA in this regard is, because Scott Pruit’s agenda is taking care of the polluters and the donors—and, of course, himself—full stop—has nothing to do with science, has nothing to do with evidence, and won’t let evidence get in the way of what he’s trying to do—they don’t want any media coverage of what they’re doing. They don’t want internal staff to tell the truth, so they’re pushing out as many people as they can, and, even in one case, trying to hire a PR agency to effectively do external scrutiny of their internal employees to see who might be trying to do their job.

They don’t want anyone to mention climate change, the biggest threat facing humanity, and they’re stripping from their data sets information on climate change. They are refusing to consider real science in their rulemaking processes, and now trying to change the overall rulemaking process so to exclude important parts of environmental science and public health science. They are working in every possible way they can to reach predetermined results on behalf of polluters. You know, for a long time, the deregulatory forces in the country said, “Look, all we want is more evidence. Let’s just do more studies. Let’s do more studies.” And studies was sort of their excuse for why they should delay the next regulatory protection. But now that they’ve got control of power, they want nothing to do with evidence. They want nothing to do with science. They just want to get to their predetermined outcome, which is enabling polluters to pollute more.

And as I said, it is an outrage. And it’s not just an outrage because, you know, the air is going to be dirtier in the abstract. It’s an outrage because real people are going to suffer. And the real people, it’s all of us, but, as is normally the case, it will be concentrated in low-income communities and people-of-color communities, where the most hazardous sites exist, where the most pollution goes on and where the communities have the least local power to fight back to protect themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Rob Weissman, on Wednesday, Elaina Plott, a journalist with The Atlantic, reported she was castigated by EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox when she asked for comment on the resignation of one of Pruitt’s top aides. Wilcox reportedly told Plott, “You’re a piece of trash.” Meanwhile, a former top attorney for the chemical industry has been named to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Task Force: Steven Cook, who worked for two decades at the chemical giant LyondellBasell. ThinkProgress reports Cook will now be responsible for overseeing the cleanup of Superfund sites polluted by his former employer. Rob?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah. So, both those stories are reflective of what’s going on at the EPA, the first, again, this hostility to journalists for just reporting on what’s going on, again, also following a lead from the White House, of course, and, in the second, part of this grand story throughout the Trump administration of bringing in industry to be in charge of—industry officials or former officials or former lawyers for industry to then come into government and be in charge of regulating the companies that they once worked for. It’s not just this guy from the chemical industry. It’s also this chemical industry science I mentioned—scientist I mentioned. It’s also a coal lobbyist who’s now the number two at EPA.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Andrew Wheeler.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: It’s other officials who came from oil and gas—that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about this? So, this, for him to be number two, that means if Scott Pruitt is forced out—

ROBERT WEISSMAN: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —that Andrew Wheeler, who’s worked for nearly a decade on behalf of fossil fuel companies, including the coal company Murray Energy, approved by the Senate in April, becomes second-in-command and would become the EPA administrator, at least for a time. Is that right?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, we absolutely think that Scott Pruitt should be impeached. It’s a bit of a power game now in D.C. to see if he can hold on. The White House wants him to go, but not the most important person in the White House, the president. Increasingly, members of—Republican members of Congress are saying, “Look, this is just an embarrassment. We’ve got to get rid of this guy.” And we think Congress should do its duty and force him out through impeachment. But we have to be honest and recognize what that means. We’re going to probably have Pruitt exit the scene and have a coal industry lobbyist come and be in charge of the EPA.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Pruitt rolling back Obama-era fuel standards, very briefly, if you could explain what that is?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: So, the most important thing that President Obama did to deal with climate change was not the Clean Power Plan. It was increasing the fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. It was being done in two phases. And it’s just a win-win: It’s going to massively reduce the amount of carbon pollution that goes in the air; by also reducing the amount of gas that our cars need, it’s going to save consumers a huge amount of money. Pruitt is now trying to roll back the second phase of that. The cost in dollar terms to consumers will be more than $100 billion, let alone the impact on climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rob Weissman, I want to thank you for being with us, president of Public Citizen. Last year, Public Citizen launched CorporateCabinet.org, a website tracking the corporate connections and conflicts of interest of the Trump Cabinet appointees.