Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt last year had a top aide help contact Republican donors who might offer his wife a job, eventually securing her a position at a conservative political group that has backed him for years, according to multiple individuals familiar with the matter.
And when one donor, Doug Deason, said he could not hire Marlyn Pruitt because of a conflict of interest, Pruitt continued to solicit his help in trying to find other possibilities.
A spokesman for the Judicial Crisis Network confirmed Tuesday that it employed the onetime school nurse “temporarily as an independent contractor,” but it did not disclose via email how long she worked there or what she was paid. The spokesman said the position came about after the group received her résumé from Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society. The two organizations have financial ties.
Leo is a prominent Pruitt backer and longtime friend who was involved in arrangements for the administrator’s visit to Italy last year. Taxpayers spent more than $100,000 on the trip, which included private tours of the Vatican and meals at some of Rome’s finest restaurants.
Marlyn Pruitt left the JCN earlier this year, the spokesman said, adding that the group was pleased with her work. But the search and hiring raises more ethics questions about Scott Pruitt’s use of EPA staff as well as his contacts with GOP contributors and outside allies for his personal benefit. Federal ethics rules prohibit public officials from using their posts for private gain or receiving free services or other gifts from their subordinates.
Virginia Canter, executive branch ethics counsel for the public watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in an interview that Pruitt’s having a full-time EPA employee “become the headhunter for his spouse” was “highly inappropriate” since the outcome of the search “would affect his financial interests.”
“It’s above and beyond anything I’m aware of, with respect to any government employee,” she said, with the fact that Leo accompanied Pruitt on the trip to Italy making the situation even more problematic.
Asked about the matter Tuesday, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement, “I would refer you to outside counsel.”
Pruitt’s outside counsel, Cleta Mitchell — a political-law attorney at Foley & Lardner LLP, who also helped establish Pruitt’s legal defense fund — did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. Marlyn Pruitt also did not respond to a request for comment.
The administrator already faces a dozen federal inquiries into his spending and management decisions at the agency, including his first-class travels, a $50-a-night condo rental from a lobbyist and the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office. At no point did he consult with EPA ethics officials about his months-long efforts to get his wife a job, current and former agency officials said.
In several instances over the past 15 months, according to the individuals familiar with his overtures, Pruitt approached corporate executives and prominent Republicans whom he had met either while serving as Oklahoma attorney general or after joining President Trump’s Cabinet.
In 2017, for example, he approached Deason on whether the Dallas-based investor would be able to hire Marlyn Pruitt. A biography for Deason, who is president of his family’s business, Deason Capital Services, notes that the firm has “a substantial holding in oil and gas operating company Foreland Resources, LLC.”
Deason told officials — including Dravis and Mitchell — that he could not hire Pruitt because his company has financial dealings in areas regulated by the agency. He agreed to brainstorm other possibilities for her, he said Tuesday, consulting with both women about potential jobs. Deason said Dravis eventually deferred his questions to Mitchell.
“I couldn’t find anything that made sense, that wasn’t some kind of conflict,” he said. “I’d get a list of names, and say, ‘Here are some people, here’s what they do,’ and it didn’t take long before it was pretty obvious that I was not going to be able to help.”
Dravis, who has left the EPA and declined to comment, complained to friends at the time that she felt uncomfortable tapping Pruitt’s extensive political network and her own to find a new source of income for his family. “He pressured her,” one friend recalled, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Marlyn Pruitt worked as a school nurse in the early 1990s before focusing on raising the couple’s two children, according to Oklahoma state records and interviews with several current and former Trump administration officials.
She and her husband have a residence in Tulsa and one in Washington, and he told EPA aides last spring that he needed more money to maintain both. Current and former employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said the administrator embarked on a concerted campaign to line up employment opportunities for her.
In May 2017, The Washington Post reported last week, he instructed one of his schedulers to contact executives at the restaurant chain Chick-fil-A about a franchise for Marlyn. That same month, he introduced her to the chief executive of the New York City-based nonprofit Concordia, which later paid her $2,000 for work on a conference that Pruitt addressed in his official EPA capacity.
The EPA declined to comment for that Post report.
The Judicial Crisis Network, which historically has pushed for the appointment of conservative judges, has given millions of dollars in recent years to groups associated with Pruitt, according to IRS filings. Starting in 2013, when he was chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association, the JCN gave the organization $2,445,000 over three years. It donated $885,000 in the same period to the Rule of Law Defense Fund, an offshoot group Pruitt launched that describes itself as a “public policy organization for issues relevant to the nation’s Republican attorneys general.”
In 2016, records show, one of Pruitt’s Oklahoma-based PACs, Liberty 2.0, received $25,000 from the JCN. The attorneys general organization got $1.3 million that year.
Asked about its financial support of Pruitt and organizations that he led, the JCN’s spokesman said they were “among the most active defenders of the rule of law and limited constitutional government. . . . Pruitt was among the AGs who shared those principles and beliefs.”
The group took in $25.6 million in donations in the fiscal year that ended June 2017, its most recent tax filing indicates. It reported having no employees or volunteers but paid millions to outside contractors for polling, consulting, advertising and public relations. It is not required to disclose contributors.
Its spokesman said Marlyn Pruitt’s work was related to setting up new offices. “She has great organizational skills, and she was retained by JCN at a time when the organization needed those skills,” he said.
Pruitt also has been a reliable booster for the Federalist Society in recent years, interacting with it during his time as Oklahoma attorney general and speaking at events from Washington, D.C., to California.
As EPA administrator, Pruitt has continued to be a presence at Federalist gatherings, speaking on occasion and meeting with top officials, his public schedule shows.
During his second month on the job, he talked to a Federalist gathering at Tony Cheng’s Restaurant in the District’s Chinatown. Last September, he addressed a New York chapter of the Federalist Society. In February, he flew to Florida as the keynote speaker for a Federalist gathering at a Disney yacht club.
But while Leo proved helpful in connecting Marlyn Pruitt with the Judicial Crisis Network — it has an office in the same building as the Federalist Society on I Street NW in the District — not all of Scott Pruitt’s efforts to line up work for his wife succeeded.
Deason’s assistance ultimately fell short. The investor remained in touch with the administrator, however. According to emails recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, Deason emailed Pruitt and his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, on multiple issues last year. In October, he secured Pruitt for the keynote address at a D.C. gathering of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank on whose board Deason sits.
Deason said he continues to back Pruitt and his deregulatory agenda. “The president is supporting him, and I’m 100 percent convinced he is going to continue to support him,” Deason said.
In his federal financial disclosure form last year, Pruitt wrote “none” in an entry for spouse’s income. He requested an extension on this year’s disclosure form, which was due in May.
Pressed last week about his wife’s pursuit of work since he joined the Trump administration, Pruitt told a reporter, “Look, my wife is an entrepreneur herself.”
Marlyn Pruitt, 52, had little earnings in the years before she and her husband moved to Washington. As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt certified on ethics forms that she had no income above $5,000 in 2014 and 2015 — the threshold for disclosure.
State forms from earlier years do not specifically ask about a spouse’s income. But other records show her previous employment and salary.
From 1991 to 1995, payroll records show, Marlyn Pruitt worked as a public school nurse in Jenks, a suburb of Tulsa, earning between $18,300 and $23,911 annually. A résumé she submitted to the school district shows she was certified in neonatal advanced life support and was a registered nurse in Oklahoma and Kentucky. It also identified her as a preschool Sunday school teacher.
Her nursing licenses expired in 1996, records show, just as Scott Pruitt was building a small legal practice in Tulsa focused on defending Christians in religious liberty cases.
Marlyn Pruitt kept a low profile in Oklahoma as her husband’s political career took off. She appears to have launched a company of her own last June.
MP Strategies, LLC was incorporated in Oklahoma, though public records provide a few clues that the Pruitts are tied to the firm. (Scott Pruitt has declined to discuss the company.) The person named on incorporation documents is a lawyer at a Tulsa firm co-owned by Kenneth Wagner, a law school friend whom Pruitt brought into the EPA.
Yet the firm lists its business address as the Pruitts’ home in Tulsa. And documents on file with the state show the company email address contains Marlyn Pruitt’s name. Concordia CEO Matthew Swift confirmed in an email Monday that his group paid her for last year’s logistics work through MP Strategies.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.