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Two officials close to EPA chief Scott Pruitt resign amid scrutiny

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. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Albert “Kell” Kelly, a top aide to Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt who was hired to revitalize the agency’s cleanup of toxic sites, resigned Tuesday amid scrutiny of his previous actions as the leader of a bank in Oklahoma and his lifetime ban from banking.

Kelly joined Pruitt at the EPA a year ago to head up a task force examining ways to improve and streamline the agency’s Superfund program. Around the same time, as part of a civil settlement, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation fined him $125,000, and it later banned him from banking altogether.

Kelly’s resignation was one of two high-profile EPA departures Tuesday. The head of Pruitt’s personal security detail, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, also announced his retirement from the agency.

Perrotta faces congressional scrutiny for his role in Pruitt’s security arrangements, which have been more extensive than those of previous EPA administrators. He initially had planned to step down this summer but accelerated his retirement, officials said.

The resignations come as Pruitt faces multiple investigations by the agency’s inspector general. He is under scrutiny for ethics and spending issues, including renting a D.C. condo from a lobbyist at a below-market rate, installing a costly soundproof phone booth and spending millions on his personal security.

Pruitt praised Kelly and Perrotta in separate statements, saying that the latter had “selflessly served the American people for more than 23 years,” beginning as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

Pruitt said Kelly had made a “tremendous impact” on the agency’s Superfund program, which aims to clean up hundreds of the nation’s most toxic sites. Kelly helmed a task force that issued recommendations to speed up those efforts.

“Kell Kelly’s service at EPA will be sorely missed,” Pruitt wrote.

Scott Pruitt vows to speed the nation’s Superfund cleanups. Communities wonder how.

Kelly has been one of Pruitt’s key confidants in Washington, advising him on how to handle mounting ethics inquiries. The two are fellow Oklahomans and old friends; the bank that Kelly led, SpiritBank, loaned money to Pruitt on several occasions, including for a home purchase and a stake in a minor-league baseball team, according to media reports.

There is no indication the FDIC action against Kelly was related to the bank’s loans to Pruitt. A consent agreement Kelly signed in May 2017 offers few details but refers to two companies that borrowed from SpiritBank, including one that was attempting to develop a commercial property near Tulsa.

The agreement, obtained by E&E News, says the FDIC had reason to believe Kelly “violated a law or regulation, by entering into an agreement pertaining to a loan” without FDIC approval. In the agreement, Kelly did not admit or deny wrongdoing.

In January, Kelly called the FDIC settlement a “highly frustrating” experience. “Bottom line, it ended up being a settlement of a civil matter,” he told The Washington Post.

Kelly did not respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Two individuals briefed on his decision, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel matter, said Kelly was tired of coming under criticism for the FDIC ban and did not need the job. One noted that Pruitt did not come out in strong defense of Kelly during his testimony before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee last week.

Many environmental advocates voiced skepticism of Kelly’s appointment to run the Superfund program given his lack of experience in public health. They also expressed concern that the push to speed up Superfund work — particularly without additional funds — might lead to slipshod work that could expose nearby residents to toxins.

“The faster the cleanup in many of these sites, the less effective the cleanup actually is,” said Erik D. Olson, who directs health initiatives for the environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council.

Yet many career officials, residents living near Superfund sites and companies involved in the program came to view Kelly as a competent administrator who solicited input from all sides. Kelly traveled the country in an effort to identify ways to speed cleanups, some of which have languished for decades. He readily handed out his email and cellphone number.

“I’m pretty heartbroken today,” said Dawn Chapman, a founder of Just Moms STL, an activist group that has long pushed for the excavation of a St. Louis landfill contaminated with nuclear waste. “I only know what this guy was doing for our community. I saw a man that had real compassion.”

At Superfund sites, Scott Pruitt could flip his industry-friendly script

Perrotta, who was personally selected by Pruitt to head the administrator’s detail, weighed in on matters beyond security, including on personnel and management decisions, agency officials said. He often traveled with Pruitt overseas and domestically.

Lawmakers have been pressing the EPA to provide details on Perrotta’s role in several key spending decisions, including his push to get a member of the management team of Perrotta’s outside consulting firm, Sequoia Security Group, a contract for a $3,000 bug sweep of Pruitt’s office a year ago. He also recommended last spring that Pruitt receive a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week protective detail, which has tripled the size of the team and cost taxpayers roughly $3 million.

Perrotta is slated to meet with investigators at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday, and Tuesday he told ABC News he said he planned to fully cooperate.

Perrotta did not respond to messages from The Post, which first reported last week that he planned to retire early. “All of this press is taking a toll on my family,” Perrotta told ABC News on Tuesday. “I decided to move on, and it’s been an honor to serve.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.