When former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned in July 2018 amid a flurry of ethics scandals, he had already weathered months of inquiries into inappropriate use of the office for personal gain. He had spent over $100,000 of taxpayer money on first-class flights to Italy and Morocco. He had installed a $43,000 private phone booth in EPA headquarters. He ordered the locks in EPA headquarters to be replaced with biometric locks, even though he couldn’t explain to a member of Congress what biometric locks are. And all the while, he paid $50 a night for a condo on Capitol Hill owned by the wife of a lobbyist—a lobbyist whose clients are regulated by the EPA.
Even amid Pruitt’s nonstop public relations nightmares, he maintained President Trump’s support, which made it feel like Pruitt could get away with everything. In the end, there wasn’t a single scandal, or final straw, that precipitated his downfall—it was the endless parade of them. In his resignation letter, Pruitt said that he and his family were victims of “unrelenting attacks.” Trump, for his part, said that Pruitt told him he didn’t want to be a “distraction” for the administration.
The subtext, of course, was that if Pruitt had managed to keep his lavish spending and cozy relationship with lobbyists quiet, he could have stayed atop the EPA indefinitely. Which explains why, days after Pruitt’s resignation, one of the EPA officials who blew the whistle on Pruitt’s behavior took credit for his 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,” Kevin Chmielewski, a former EPA employee, told The Hill in July 2018. Chmielewski, who served as deputy chief of staff for operations at the agency throughout most of Pruitt’s tenure, took issue with what he saw as Pruitt’s “chronic abuse of taxpayer dollars.” Chmielewski took concerns about Pruitt directly to the White House and, eventually, to congressional Democrats. In response, Chmielewski was placed on administrative leave without pay. He was one of four EPA officials who were reassigned or demoted or who left the agency because they flagged Pruitt’s ethical and financial misconduct.
Now comes the long-awaited postscript in this chaotic saga. In a new lawsuit filed in federal court on October 20, Chmielewski paints an even harsher picture of administrative retribution. According to the lawsuit, on February 12, 2018—the day after The Washington Post broke the story about Pruitt’s first-class travel habits—Chmielewski came to work only to find that he had been locked out of his office. He was subsequently escorted from the building and told that if he did not resign, he would be fired from the EPA. Chmielewski did not resign, but a few months later, he was informed in a letter that he was considered to have resigned from the EPA effective March 17, 2018.
Chmielewski’s lawsuit seems to confirm the toxic work environment previously reported at the EPA under Pruitt’s leadership. But the lawsuit also highlights, more specifically, the extent to which Pruitt’s tenure was driven by selfishness. The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment; Scott Pruitt’s mission was to protect himself and his cronies.
“Our job is to enforce the law,” Pruitt told Time in October 2017, railing against the previous administration, which he said had “taken those statutes and stretched them so far.” But when it came time actually to enforce the law, Pruitt supported cutting funds to the EPA’s enforcement office. In the first two years of the Trump administration—the two years in which Pruitt was at the helm of the EPA—prosecutions of environmental crimes, which are investigated by the EPA and pursued by the Department of Justice, dropped precipitously. According to a recent study from the University of Michigan, prosecutions under the country’s two landmark environmental laws, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, declined by 50 percent and 70 percent, respectively.
Instead, when Pruitt took action, it was always to protect himself and the industry-connected donors who had fueled his political rise. According to a since-deleted tweet Pruitt sent in January 2018, Trump’s deregulatory agenda, carried out at the EPA by Pruitt, saved industry $300 million in regulatory costs. That the repealed regulations would have prevented thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks, and asthma attacks received no mention in Pruitt’s tweet.
When Pruitt tried to defend his first-class plane trips, he blamed “a very toxic environment, politically.” His concern over toxicity apparently did not extend to children and farmworkers sickened by pesticides. In March 2017, in one of his first acts as EPA administrator, Pruitt rejected the recommendation of EPA scientists to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos on farms. Scientists cited studies connecting use of chlorpyrifos to declines in cognitive health, particularly among young children. Pruitt cited the need for “regulatory certainty.” He did not mention that, 20 days earlier, he had met with the CEO of Dow Chemical, who had also contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.
When viewed in light of Pruitt’s history at the EPA, the allegations in Chmielewski’s lawsuit reveal a familiar pattern of a man far more concerned with self-preservation than ethical considerations. In an EPA typified by deregulation and delay, Chmielewski claims he was elbowed out a day after The Washington Post broke the story about Pruitt’s first-class travel. But it makes sense that retribution would come swiftly for someone who broke Pruitt’s cardinal rule: Never put other people before yourself.