Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has now been out of office for a year and a half, but records obtained by American Oversight provide new details about his penchant for taxpayer-funded luxury travel — including, specifically, the existence of a previously unreported extra SUV.
Pruitt resigned in July 2019 after a steady stream of spending scandals and ethics concerns related to his industry connections. Besides his $43,000 soundproof phone booth and the $105,000 he spent on first-class plane tickets during his first year in office, previous reporting from the Washington Post found that in 2017, Pruitt had upgraded from a Chevrolet Tahoe, the vehicle used by his predecessors, to a customized Suburban. But now, Environmental Protection Agency emails reveal that not only did Pruitt’s expensive requests provoke uncertainty and frustration among agency officials, they also resulted in the administrator having the use of not one, but three vehicles.
In the past, EPA administrators and their deputy administrators have been granted one vehicle each for official use, according to the emails we obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those emails indicate that Pruitt had procured a second Suburban while continuing to use the Tahoe for his security staff — and that officials eventually traded the Tahoe for another new Suburban, while requesting a fourth car for the deputy administrator.
The emails provide new data points to the record of Pruitt’s extravagant spending on office furnishings, first-class security details and government vehicles. They also show how that reckless spending resulted in confusion among EPA employees responsible for making purchases essential to administrative operations. Acquiring the new cars with the Pruitt-specified modifications even interfered with their regular work, with one official having written to colleagues: “I give up. […] I am getting behind in my assignments.”
Additionally, the communications confirm the involvement of Pruitt’s former chief of security, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, in the purchasing decisions. Perrotta has been identified as a guiding force in Pruitt’s enormous security-related spending, which the Intercept found to total more than $4.6 million.
It all began in the spring of 2017, when EPA officials began compiling lease options for a 2017 Chevrolet Tahoe, the vehicle used by previous EPA administrators. At first, Pruitt’s office just requested upgrades such as bucket seats and Wi-Fi.
On March 16, 2017, EPA official Brenda Randall sent an email with quotes on different equipment packages and car specifications for the Tahoe. The quotes also included replacement costs, such as $3,200 for the installation of tinted windows and law enforcement lights. (On various occasions, Pruitt reportedly had his driver flash warning lights to speed up his trips to dinners and airports.)
Reginald Allen, then the EPA assistant deputy chief of staff, responded to Randall, inquiring about adding Wi-Fi and a second row of bucket seats to the Tahoe: “The boss would like second row bucket seats – Bench third row.”
But the plan to simply upgrade the Tahoe for Pruitt’s primary use was short-lived. Lenee Morina, the headquarters branch chief at the EPA Facilities Management and Services Division (FMSD), emailed Vaughn Noga, director of the EPA Office of Administration and Resources Management (OARM), on April 5. Morina said the current Tahoe would be used by the deputy administrator because Pruitt’s office had decided it would rather have a new Suburban.
The change prompted FMSD Director Gayle Jefferson to email Allen on April 10 to ask how the EPA’s cars were being used. Allen replied: “The intent was the Tahoe would be available for the Deputy Administrator – once we have one – AND serve a backup if the suburban go’s down. Trying really hard to be good stewards of the public trust and balance requirements.”
Four days later, Randall sent a revised summary of equipment packages, vehicle specifications, and lease options for a 2017 Chevrolet Suburban. But the emails show that there was another plan for getting a Suburban in the works, seemingly outside the normal procurement process and spearheaded by Pruitt’s security team.
On April 28, an unidentified individual sent Allen and Perrotta an email with the subject line “Suburban Options.” The email listed two car choices for Pruitt and alluded to particular specifications requested by the security detail: “I identified two dealerships within the D.C. area that have a vehicle that meets the stated wants of the Administrator and the security needs of the protection detail. […] These vehicles have all the features that were requested.” Allen forwarded that email to Morina, Randall, and Jefferson: “Gayle and team See below from PSD.” (PSD is the internal EPA abbreviation for Protective Service Detail, the security team that protects top officials.)
Randall emailed Jefferson and suggested letting Allen’s staff take over procuring a new car. “I give up,” she wrote. “I am getting behind in my assignments, dealing with these constant delays every two days.”
A few days later, Sherry Sterling, acting FMSD deputy director, responded to the Allen’s forwarded email: “Per your note below, please give me a call,” Sterling wrote. “Gayle [Jefferson] is not in today and this seems to be going out of control.”
But according to the records, Pruitt’s security team was anxious to get the new Suburban right away and avoid a lengthy procurement process. “[T]he protective detail was putting forth the idea that they would purchase the car for EPA ‘off the lot,’” Sterling wrote in a May 2 email. “They thought they could do this in just a few days rather than wait through our process.
“Reggie [Allen] has said that once the contract is signed, he can tell the protective detail that this is a ‘done deal,’” she continued. “That said, he is concerned that the protective detail/the administrator will want us to break the contract and purchase a car outright; hence, Lenee’s [Morina] research into car purchasing. […] Just wanted you to hear the saga of the Suburban in case anyone asks.”
The security team’s impatience did in fact result in the purchase of a new car, even as officials were proceeding with the normal leasing protocol. This brought the total number of cars to two — a Suburban and the Tahoe — with a second Suburban on the way. On May 24, an email from Sterling indicated that Pruitt’s security team had “procured” a Suburban for the administrator to use “until the new Suburban arrives” in June.“What is interesting to us is that PSD took this on themselves when Brenda had offered to get a month-to-month lease while we awaited the arrival of the new car,” Sterling wrote. “Oh well!”
Noga, who had been on the email, asked, “What does procured mean?” Sterling said that “Reggie did not reveal how they obtained the car” and that it was possible a credit card was used for the purchase.
Noga emailed Allen the next day and asked for clarification, noting that his own team, the resource-management office, was handling a vehicle purchase as well: “As you know we are working on this same activity, and we were recently told that the vehicle my folks are working on would be here by the end of June. Can you please shed a little more light on the mechanism by which you all acquired the vehicle? Was this a purchase, or is it a lease? If it was a purchase, then what are your plans for the vehicle that will be arriving in June.”
In response to Noga’s questions, Henry Barnet, director of the EPA Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics & Training (OCEFT), said in an email that his office had acquired the new car through a trade-in on an existing EPA car. “This would be a short term fix for the vehicle the Administrator requested,” he wrote.
Barnet referred to the new car as an “interim suburban vehicle” — but the emails American Oversight obtained reveal that the car remained in Pruitt’s use even after the second new car was delivered on June 20. The total number of cars was now three.
On Oct. 5, 2017, President Donald Trump officially nominated Andrew Wheeler as deputy administrator. Shortly thereafter, Pruitt’s security team appears to have made a request for another vehicle, despite Pruitt and his staff still having three cars at their disposal — including the Tahoe that was supposed to be for the deputy’s use.
A week after Wheeler’s nomination, Jefferson, the director of the facilities management division, emailed OCEFT Deputy Director Pam Mazakas about Pruitt’s three cars. “It appears as though the PSDs are using two suburbans and the Tahoe to support the Administrator….and now they are requesting yet another vehicle for the new deputy who was just recently nominated,” she wrote. “Historically, the Administrator is driven in one vehicle and the deputy in another–never has there been more than one for each. The PSDs drive other vehicles for their use-not of the suburban and Tahoe caliber.”
Mazakas replied and admitted that there was “a little confusion on the cars.” She suggested a meeting and said that the Tahoe “is not really” Pruitt’s and that they “can stop using it at any time.”
“I don’t believe we are seeking a third suburban so I’m not sure how this issue arose,” Mazakas wrote. “We have one suburban assigned for the Administrator and then we have another suburban as part of the ‘pool’ that our agents use primarily for the midnight shift and also to have available for the Administrator when the regular suburban is having work done. I understand the Tahoe was just a vehicle leased by the AO [Office of the Administrator] and the lease couldn’t be cancelled so we were told we could use it, but it’s not really ours and we can stop using it at any time.”
But according to emails exchanged by officials in the facilities management division later that week, Mazakas’s explanation didn’t square with the continued efforts of Pruitt’s office to get yet another vehicle. “Pam’s [Mazakas] story regarding the Tahoe is different than what Reggie [Allen] shared,” wrote Lenee Morina. “He stated that the PSD took possession of the Tahoe and will not return it for the DA [deputy administrator] uses.”
Jefferson forwarded Mazakas’s explanation to Perrotta in security, Barnet in criminal enforcement, and an unnamed individual: “Can you confirm that the Tahoe is not currently being used by anyone? And, that the PSDs will not drive or support the Deputy Administrator?”
The individual, whose name was redacted, replied a few minutes later: “The Tahoe is being utilized by the detail. It is equipped with the same equipment as the primary limo and is used nightly as the midnight shift limo and is the primary backup limo in the event the Suburban is down for mechanical or other issues.”
“So, the Administrator’s detail is using two suburbans and the Tahoe?” Jefferson wrote. “This seems to conflict with Pam Mazakas’ understanding below?”
It is unclear how staff resolved internal concerns about procuring another car, but it is evident that in the months to follow there continued to be a push to acquire a third Suburban. On Oct. 26, Randall sent an email to several officials regarding a plan to lease “a gently used Suburban for the Deputy Assistant Administrator.” And nearly six months later, Allen had apparently procured a lease for that third Suburban.
In April 2018, EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, prompted by the Washington Post’s reporting that one of Pruitt’s cars had been outfitted with bullet-resistant seat covers, began looking for information on all the cars being used. He and Acting Deputy Chief of Staff Helena Wooden-Aguilar started to piece together which cars were being used by the administrator and which leases could be terminated, in the process confirming that a Tahoe had been “sent back.”
They also expressed frustration over having to cancel the order for a third Suburban at a penalty fee of $14,820. “I’m entirely unsure why Reggie [Allen] ordered this,” wrote Jackson. “With the Tahoe sent back, we would otherwise have two new Suburban’s, correct? That seems very sufficient to me.”
“Unfortunately I don’t know why he ordered it,” said Wooden-Aguilar.
“He never one time asked me about a third new suburban,” Jackson replied. “It’s infuriating really.” The third Suburban appears to be the vehicle reported on by the Washington Post a couple of months later, in June 2018.
Pruitt announced his resignation that summer on July 5, but officials were still left to tie up the loose ends of his many questionable purchases.
In mid-July, Aaron Ringel, an official in the EPA’s congressional relations office, sent a request to the resource management office for information on the latest Suburban purchase: “It has been reported that EPA entered into a new vehicle lease for a Chevrolet Suburban at $10,200 annually. This lease was reportedly for a more upscale LT model, instead of the LS model typically leased and included monthly charges of $300 for luxury upgrades. What were the terms and rate of the previous vehicle used by the Administrator, and what was the rationale for these upgrades?”
Ringel’s email reached Jefferson in facilities management later that day, who looped in Morina. Morina replied that the facilities management no longer oversaw the administrator’s vehicle, and that the responsibility had been transferred to a separate EPA division that included the criminal enforcement office. “The request for the upgrade came from the Administrator’s office, however, I cannot recall the specifics regarding the upgrade,” Morina said.
The communications obtained by American Oversight reveal how efforts by career employees to accommodate Pruitt and his staff’s sometimes suspect requests often resulted in frustration. They also provide new details to the record of Pruitt’s mismanagement of the EPA, his exploitation of administrator perks, and the agency’s continued transformation under Donald Trump’s presidency.
“Scott Pruitt embodied the ethical emptiness of the Trump administration,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight, in a 2018 statement regarding Pruitt’s resignation. “While Pruitt’s nonstop scandals may have grabbed most of the headlines, the Trump administration’s ethical problems run far deeper and aren’t going away any time soon.”
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