The head of an Oklahoma-based public relations firm with a large energy practice helped Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt secure tickets for his family to go to the Rose Bowl in January, agency officials confirmed Friday.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) detailed the transaction Friday morning in a letter he sent to Renzi Stone, a member of Oklahoma University’s Board of Regents and head of the communications firm Saxum, requesting information “regarding your actions in assisting EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in obtaining highly sought-after tickets to attend the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.” The Oklahoma Sooners played the Georgia Bulldogs that day in the national semifinals.
Cummings cites Millan Hupp, Pruitt’s former director of scheduling and advance, who told House Oversight Committee staffers during an interview last month that Stone had provided Pruitt’s family with the coveted tickets. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox confirmed Friday that Stone had put Pruitt in contact with Oklahoma University’s athletics department so that he could purchase the tickets “at face value.”
Saxum describes itself as “a full-service marketing communications agency” and says that Stone has “extensive experience in marketing strategy, crisis communication and public affairs for energy companies.” Its website is emblazoned with the slogan “We Know Energy” and includes the sentence, “We believe that energy will continue to be a divisive issue for many years to come.”
While the company’s website highlights a wide array of clients, including 7-Eleven, First Fidelity Bank and the University of Oklahoma, it does appear to have a large energy practice, having performed work for clients such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and Tulsa-based Williams.
“Federal ethics rules prohibit government employees from accepting gifts, such as tickets to sporting events, unless they pay ‘market value,’ ” Cummings wrote in his letter, asking Stone to provide “all documents and communications” with Pruitt dating to Jan. 20, 2017. “Moreover, a government employee may not accept a gift provided ‘because of the employee’s official position.’ ”
In his letter, Cummings noted that one Saxum client, Plains All American Pipeline, “currently has a petition before the EPA to discharge hydrostatic test water from a pipeline” in Corpus Christi, Tex. However, an official at the company said in an email Friday that it is “a former client of Saxum.”
“Our prior association ended in November 2017 and was limited to Oklahoma-based public relations support for a pipeline construction project,” the official said.
Wilcox accused Cummings on Friday of “misconstruing the facts.”
“Renzi Stone, a friend of Administrator Pruitt and regent to the University of Oklahoma, simply connected Pruitt to the athletic department,” Wilcox said. “Pruitt purchased the tickets at face value from the OU athletic department. To report otherwise is false.”
In a series of tweets Friday morning, Stone elaborated on that account.
“Each year mid-Dec people call for OU bowl tickets. Scott Pruitt, my friend since 2001, asked through an aide if he could buy Rose Bowl tix,” he tweeted. “I made connection to OU ticket office. He bought them. That’s it. I’ll respond to Rep. Cummings … we don’t do any work for clients at EPA.”
After the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, tweeted to Stone about his firm’s work for API, “Thanks for definitively confirming that the oil industry lobbying association is a client of yours,” the public relations executive replied on Twitter: “We did some videos for them. Do your homework.”
“A client we have never discussed @epa with in any way,” Stone tweeted. “Not everyone who works with DC or energy sector clients lobby federal agencies, FYI. In our case with API and every other client Saxum works with, lobbying EPA isn’t the type of work we do.”
Saxum also financially supported Pruitt’s political activities while he served as attorney general, federal election records show. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the firm donated $2,500 to a political action committee affiliated with Pruitt, Liberty 2.0, in 2015.
Days before Pruitt attended the Rose Bowl, he also sat with his son in premium seats near the court at a University of Kentucky basketball game. The New York Times recently reported that Pruitt scored those tickets through a longtime friend, Joseph Craft, a billionaire coal baron who heads Alliance Resource Partners, one of the nation’s largest coal mining firms. The EPA said at the time that Pruitt had paid $130 for each ticket, and the company said Craft had sold them at “market value.”
The most recent spate of ethical misconduct allegations against Pruitt, however, does not appear to have shifted President Trump’s view of his EPA chief. Asked Friday morning about Pruitt, Trump told reporters, “I’m not happy about certain things, but he’s done a fantastic job running the EPA, which is very overriding.”