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Lobbyist tied to Pruitt’s condo rental pushed for EPA to hire family friend, emails show

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill on May 16. (Al Drago/Reuters)

The lobbyist whose wife rented Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt a room in a Capitol Hill condo at a discounted rate lobbied Pruitt’s chief of staff to hire a family friend, according to recently released agency emails.

The exchange is among several previously undisclosed interactions that show how J. Steven Hart, who served as chairman of the law firm Williams & Jensen until earlier this year, sought to exert influence over decisions at the agency even as his spouse was renting Pruitt a $50-a-night room in an upscale condo blocks from the Capitol. The communications, released as part of a public records lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, also appear to undermine initial arguments that Hart had not lobbied the EPA during Pruitt’s tenure.

The emails show both Hart and his wife, Vicki — who rented Pruitt the condo under an agreement that he pay only for the nights he stayed there — pushed for the EPA to hire Jimmy Guilliano, a recent college graduate.

“I seldom talk to Scott but Vicki does,” Hart wrote to Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson on April 14, 2017. “She has talked to Scott about this kid who is important to us. He told Vicki to talk to you about how to handle this. I am not sure personally that this is a good idea for Jimmy unless he is working near you. Sticking him down in the bowels is death at EPA. His family is all Naval Academy by the way.”

In an email Sunday, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the agency did not hire Guilliano and the agency stands by its previous statement that Hart did not lobby the agency.

“The Agency accepts career recommendations from a number of acquaintances. Ultimately, Mr. Guilliano was not hired,” Wilcox wrote, adding that when it came to Hart’s other correspondence with Jackson, “Many of these emails were unsolicited and did not impact any Agency policy outcomes.”

In a statement Sunday, Hart said, “I never received any special treatment from Administrator Pruitt or had any undue influence over the Environmental Protection Agency. Ryan Jackson is an old friend whom I have known for many years prior to his service with the EPA.” He added, “We have discussed numerous issues and topics during his tenure as chief of staff, but he has never performed a special favor on my behalf.”

This spring, Hart said in interview with The Washington Post and other outlets that he did no EPA lobbying during 2017 or 2018. But his former firm amended his lobbying disclosure documents this month to reflect he worked on behalf of Coca-Cola, the Financial Oversight and Management Control Board of Puerto Rico, and Smithfield Foods — contacts that are borne out in the newly released emails.

Hart and Jackson, both Oklahomans, knew each other before Pruitt took the helm of the EPA. The emails, first reported Sunday afternoon by the New York Times, show the lobbyist repeatedly contacted Jackson on a range of topics, asking him to arrange meetings for his clients and place allies of his in different EPA jobs.

“I unfortunately represent the Puerto Rico Financial Control Board,” Hart wrote to Jackson one day in  October, offering to bring the board’s executive director by for an introduction while she was in Washington. “I do not need a meeting but might be good optics for you to be concerned about the water infrastructure. The electric grid is our first concern but there are going to be huge health issues related to the water treatment facility.”

Earlier that August, Hart contacted Jackson to discuss a court ruling regarding the phasing out of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs — greenhouse gases that can be hundreds to thousands of times as potent as carbon dioxide.

“Some large U.S. companies like Coca Cola have to make long term investment decisions relating to their refrigerated beverage machines,” Hart wrote. “I think this might be a good topic for you guys to reach out on to the manufacturers. There are all sorts of technical issues that arise when you get rid of HFC’s.”

That month, the emails show, Hart worked to place candidates on the agency’s Scientific Advisory Board, which helps guide the EPA’s research, though those efforts did not appear to bear fruit. Pruitt revamped the membership of several EPA advisory panels in the fall, adding officials allied with industry groups while barring any researchers from serving if they were simultaneously receiving EPA grants.

At one point, for example, Hart wrote Jackson that he wanted “to highlight three candidates for the Science Advisory Board, who were nominated by our client, Dennis Treacy, the President of the Smithfield Foundation.”

Wilcox said the candidates Hart had suggested “were not considered. Because their names are redacted, they were not selected.”

At other point, while emailing Jackson on the issue, Hart wrote, “We need to smoke a cigar soon.” Hart hosted cigar parties in the same condo apartment complex where Pruitt stayed between February and August 2017.

On Nov. 27, Hart wrote to Jackson offering help of a different kind. “Having dinner with [Sen. Richard] Burr [R-N.C.] tonight — should I try to move him or want to just give up?” he wrote, referring to the contentious confirmation battle over Michael Dourson, a University of Cincinnati toxicologist who had been tapped as the EPA’s top chemical safety official. Dourson withdrew from consideration weeks later after it became clear that the Senate was unlikely to confirm him.

At least on one occasion, even when Hart did not contact the agency directly, those he represented did.

“We are a client of Steve Hart’s and he’s traveling today but suggested I reach out to you,” the head of government affairs for HSBC North America wrote to Jackson on May 5, 2017, in an email about where the EPA stood on whether the United States should withdraw from the international Paris climate accord. “Do you have a couple of minutes for me to call you on the subject of the agreement[?] I am interested in better understanding the EPA view.”

Jackson asked whether the following Monday would work.

Pruitt’s rental arrangement with Vicki Hart remains under scrutiny by the House Oversight and Government Relations Committee, as well as the EPA’s Office of Inspector General.

Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.

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