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EPA chief Scott Pruitt relied on obscure law to hire ex-lobbyists, schedulers and spokesmen

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks at a news conference at EPA headquarters in Washington on Tuesday on his decision to scrap Obama administration fuel standards. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt hired at least two ex-lobbyists and several other aides for noncritical positions through an obscure provision in a water-safety law.

The unusual hires are raising questions about whether the embattled Cabinet official is circumventing President Trump’s ethics directives or using his emergency hiring authority as intended.

The 1977 provision to the Safe Drinking Water Act authorizes the EPA to hire up to 30 people without the approval of the Senate or the White House. The power, granted directly to the EPA administrator, was originally designed to let the agency quickly hire senior management and scientific personnel during times of critical need.

But Pruitt appears to have used his hiring power differently, relying on the provision to bring in former lobbyists along with young spokesmen and schedulers.

Lee Forsgren, formerly an attorney for the lobbying firm HBW Resources, was hired through the water-safety provision to be deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Water — an office that has jurisdiction over oil spills, among other things. In 2013, the Consumer Energy Alliance, an advocacy organization managed by HBW Resources, issued an economic analysis finding that the Keystone XL pipeline would generate $580.2 million in direct spending over two years in Nebraska.

Pruitt also hired Nancy Beck, formerly an executive at the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry lobby shop, through the provision. As a deputy at the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Beck has pushed for revising a number of chemical-safety rules, according to the New York Times.

Two other people who worked for Pruitt when he was Oklahoma attorney general — Michelle Hale and Lincoln Ferguson — were also hired by the EPA through the loophole. Hale is one of Pruitt’s executive assistants while Ferguson is an EPA spokesman. At least two other agency press officers, James Hewitt and Jahan Wilcox, were hired via Pruitt’s safe-water authority.

The EPA defended its hires and use of the law. “The Safe Drinking Water Act provides the EPA with broad authority to appoint scientific, engineering, professional, legal, and administrative positions within EPA without regard to the civil service laws,” said Wilcox, the spokesman. “This is clear authority that has been relied on by previous administrations.”

Yet ethics experts say hiring lobbyists through the provision breaks with some of Trump’s ethics rules, even if it’s not technically illegal.

As part of his commitment to “drain the swamp” in Washington, one of the first things Trump signed after his inauguration was a far-reaching ethics directive, requiring those who join the government to sign an ethics pledge. Under the pledge, former lobbyists are banned for two years from working on any issue on which they lobbied.

But EPA employees hired through the water-safety law do not have to sign the ethics pledge.

“I think it looks terrible, whether it’s legal or not,” said Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor and former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush. Painter, a longtime Republican, has become a frequent critic of the Trump administration and is now considering a Senate run in Minnesota.

What’s more, Painter said, “if he’s bringing in schedulers or spokespeople, it seems that he is not acting consistent with the intent of Congress.”

In September, the investigative arm of Congress opened a probe into whether the EPA was circumventing the Trump administration’s own ethics rules when hiring through the drinking-water law. In January, the EPA’s inspector general announced it would audit Pruitt’s hiring practices as well.

Pruitt’s use of the little-known provision to the main federal law protecting public drinking water is in the spotlight after he also used it to grant significant raises to two EPA young staffers despite the lack of a White House approval.

After the White House refused to boost the two women’s pay, Pruitt reappointed both staff members under his authority in the act, according to two people with firsthand knowledge of the matter. The maneuver allowed Pruitt to set salary levels himself.

The salary of Sarah Greenwalt, a 30-year-old senior counsel who worked with Pruitt in Oklahoma when he was attorney general there, jumped from $107,435 to $164,200, after she was categorized under the provision. Millan Hupp, Pruitt’s 26-year-old director of scheduling and advance, got a pay bump from $86,460 to $114,590. Hupp also helped Pruitt shop for housing options for him and his wife last year, according to several individuals with knowledge of the matter. Details of the pay raises were first reported by The Atlantic and confirmed by The Washington Post. 

Wilcox said that Pruitt “was not aware that these personnel actions had not been submitted to the [White House’s] Presidential Personnel Office.  So, the Administrator has directed that they be submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office for review.”

The 1977 law was originally designed to allow the EPA chief to quickly bring aboard staff to fill “the most critical needs for additional personnel,” as the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce put it in a report that year. Similarly, then-Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.), once the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a 1977 floor speech that “the provision was intended to augment the Agency’s cadre of senior management and scientific personnel.”

Yet Pruitt’s use of the law led environmentalists and one former Obama administration official to question whether Pruitt is using his authority properly.

“The people I knew of in that category were well-seasoned, experienced professionals in their fields,” said Ken Kopocis, who headed the Office of Water from 2011 to 2015. “We did not use it as a way to get around the White House. … It’s not designed to fill up your political slots.”

Kopocis added he was unaware of the drinking-water law being used to give any employee a raise.

Erik Olson, director of health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the provision was put in place to attract top scientific talent in times of need with higher salaries unbound by the regular hiring process. At the time, “there was a shortage of experts,” he said. “It’s clearly not to give raises to current staff or to skirt ethics rules.”

Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.