Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Scott Pruitt enlisted an EPA aide to help his wife find a job — with Chick-fil-A

June 5, 2018 at 1:07 PM

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faces rising scrutiny over several ethics issues, including his use of taxpayer money. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Three months after Scott Pruitt was sworn in as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, his scheduler emailed Dan Cathy, chief executive of the fast-food company Chick-fil-A, with an unusual request: Would Cathy meet with Pruitt to discuss “a potential business opportunity”?

A call was arranged, then canceled, and Pruitt eventually spoke with someone from the company’s legal department. Only then did he reveal that the “opportunity” on his mind was a job for his wife, Marlyn.

“The subject of that phone call was an expression of interest in his wife becoming a Chick-fil-A franchisee,” company representative Carrie Kurlander told The Washington Post via email.

Marlyn Pruitt never opened a restaurant. “Administrator Pruitt’s wife started, but did not complete, the Chick-fil-A franchisee application,” Kurlander said. But the revelation that Pruitt used his official position and EPA staff to try to line up work for his wife appears to open a new chapter in the ongoing saga of his questionable spending and management decisions, which so far have spawned a dozen federal probes.

Pruitt’s efforts on his wife’s behalf — revealed in emails recently released under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Sierra Club — did not end with Chick-fil-A. He also approached the chief executive of Concordia, a New York nonprofit. The executive, Matthew A. Swift, said he ultimately paid Marlyn Pruitt $2,000 plus travel expenses to help with logistics for the group’s annual conference in September.

Current and former EPA aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said Scott Pruitt told them he was eager for his wife to start receiving a salary. Two said the administrator was frustrated in part by the high cost of maintaining homes in both Washington and Oklahoma.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox declined to comment on Pruitt’s overtures to Concordia and Chick-fil-A on his wife’s behalf .

Federal ethics laws bar public officials from using their position or staff for private gain. A Cabinet-level official using his perch to contact a company CEO about a job for his wife “raises the specter of misuse of public office,” said Don Fox, who was head of the federal Office of Government Ethics during the Obama administration. “It’s not much different [from] if he [had] asked the aide to facilitate getting a franchise for himself.”

Asking a government scheduler, Sydney Hupp, to plan the meeting also marks a violation of federal rules barring officials from asking subordinates to perform personal tasks, Fox said. “It is a misuse of the aide’s time to ask the aide to do something like this that is really for personal financial benefit.”

Hupp left the EPA last year; she did not respond to a request for comment.

Hupp was not the only EPA employee enlisted to perform nonofficial tasks. Last month, Pruitt acknowledged that Hupp’s sister, Millan, helped him search for housing in the District. She later told congressional staffers that she made inquiries at the Trump International Hotel about buying him a used mattress while she was on the EPA payroll. 

The Georgia-based Chick-fil-A receives about 40,000 “expressions of interest” each year from people hoping to operate one of its restaurants, Kurlander said.

“The process of becoming a franchisee is very thorough and results in approximately 100 people being selected each year,” she wrote. “We are very proud of the fact that those who are selected demonstrate the leadership ability and business acumen needed to own and operate Chick-fil-A restaurants.”

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Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, tried to talk about anything other than his ethics issues in front of Congress April 26. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Pruitt’s expression of interest began May 16, 2017, according to the released emails, when Sydney Hupp emailed Cathy that her boss “asked me to reach out to you and see if you might be willing to get a time set up for the two of you to have a meeting.”

Cathy, who has championed socially conservative causes and had met Pruitt during his tenure as Oklahoma attorney general, replied within an hour, connecting Hupp with one of his own aides, Evan Karanovich.

Karanovich asked whether “an initial phone call would be sufficient” and inquired what the EPA chief wanted to talk about. “The Administrator did not mention a specific topic, but I will touch base with him to see if there is one,” Hupp replied.

The two sides arranged a conference call for June 23, with Cathy scheduled to be joined by a senior attorney in his legal department. That call did not happen, company officials said, adding that “a call took place later between Administrator Pruitt and a Chick-fil-A staff member.”

The effort ultimately did not lead to a franchise for Marlyn Pruitt. Kurlander noted that “Mrs. Pruitt is not and has never been a Chick-fil-A franchisee.”

Around the same time, Scott Pruitt contacted Swift, CEO of Concordia, a nonprofit that brings together leaders from the private and public sectors. Pruitt asked Swift to call Marlyn Pruitt, Swift said in an email, which he did.

“We discussed her interest in event planning for nonprofits and events that take place in Washington,” Swift said. “Mrs. Pruitt was interested in meeting people in the nonprofit sector, and I offered to introduce her to some of Concordia’s attendees based in Washington and for her to become involved with Concordia’s events.”

Swift’s group had invited Scott Pruitt to speak at its 2017 conference in Manhattan, the same event where Marlyn Pruitt was paid $2,000 for three days’ work. At the event, Scott Pruitt was accompanied by at least three aides. EPA travel records show his first-class plane ticket cost $1,201.80, and his overnight stay came to $669.

“Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Pruitt ever solicited a position for Mrs. Pruitt at Concordia, nor was it a condition of the agreement for the administrator to speak,” Swift said.

The Pruitts’ focus on augmenting their household income appears to have come after the administrator moved to Washington and began paying for two full-time residences. The EPA chief attracted widespread criticism for renting a $50-a-night condo from a Washington lobbyist in the early months of his tenure. Since then, his housing costs appear to have increased substantially.

According to public records, Pruitt and his wife hold an $850,000 mortgage on their home in an upscale Tulsa neighborhood, requiring monthly payments of approximately $5,500 — including $17,793 in property taxes the couple paid last year. The mortgage has an adjustable rate, records show, so those payments eventually could rise.

In addition, the Pruitts lease an apartment in a modern development on Capitol Hill where one-bedroom units start at around $3,000 per month.

As EPA head, Pruitt makes $189,600 a year, according to federal records. In a federal financial form filed after he was nominated to lead the agency, Pruitt listed his only income as his attorney general’s salary, about $133,000 per year.

Under the entry for spouse’s income and retirement accounts, he wrote, “None.”

Pruitt’s most recent financial disclosure was due in May, but like many Trump administration officials, he has requested a filing extension.

Alice Crites and Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.

Read more

Related: Democrats question if Pruitt’s aide house hunted for him ‘on personal time’

Related: Pruitt aide hunted for used hotel mattress, booked personal trips on his behalf

Related: Amid ethics scrutiny, Pruitt finds his regulatory rollbacks also hitting bumps


Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's senior national affairs correspondent, covering how the new administration is transforming a range of U.S. policies and the federal government itself. She is the author of two books — one on sharks and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other — and has worked for The Post since 1998.

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health issues. He previously spent years covering the nation’s economy. Dennis was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for a series of explanatory stories about the global financial crisis.

Josh Dawsey is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. He joined the paper in 2017. He previously covered the White House for Politico, and New York City Hall and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the Wall Street Journal.

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