Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned Thursday amid ethics investigations of outsized security spending, first-class flights and a sweetheart condo lease.
With Pruitt’s departure, President Donald Trump loses an administrator many conservatives regarded as one of the more effective members of his Cabinet. But Pruitt had also been dogged for months by scandals that spawned more than a dozen federal and congressional investigations.
Talking to reporters on Air Force One, Trump continued to praise his scandal-plagued EPA chief, saying there was “no final straw” and he had not asked for Pruitt’s resignation.
“Scott is a terrific guy,” Trump said. “He came to me and said I have such great confidence in the administration I don’t want to be a distraction. ... He’ll go and do great things and have a wonderful life, I hope.”
In his resignation letter to Trump, obtained by The Associated Press, Pruitt expressed no regrets.
“It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role first because I count it a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also, because of the transformative work that is occurring,” Pruitt wrote. “However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.”
Pruitt, a Republican, had appeared Wednesday at a White House picnic for Independence Day, wearing a red-checked shirt and loafers with gold trim. Trump gave him and other officials a brief shout-out, offering no sign of any immediate change in his job.
EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, will take the helm as acting administrator starting Monday.
“I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda,” Trump tweeted Thursday.
Pruitt’s resignation came days after two of his closest advisers spoke to House oversight committee investigators and revealed new, embarrassing details in ethics scandals involving Pruitt.
Samantha Dravis, who recently resigned as Pruitt’s policy chief, told investigators last week that Pruitt had made clear to her before and after he became EPA administrator that he would like the attorney general’s job, held then and now by Jeff Sessions.
Pruitt “had hinted at that (sic) some sort of conversation had taken place between he and the president,” Dravis told congressional investigators, according to a transcript obtained Thursday by the AP. “That was the position he was originally interested in.”
A former Oklahoma attorney general close to the oil and gas industry, Pruitt had filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the agency he was picked to lead. Arriving in Washington, he worked to dismantle Obama-era environmental regulations that aimed to reduce toxic pollution and planet-warming carbon emissions.
During his one-year tenure, Pruitt crisscrossed the country at taxpayer expense to speak with industry groups and hobnob with GOP donors, but he showed little interest in listening to advocates he derided as “the environmental left.” Those groups quickly applauded his departure.
“Despite his brief tenure, Pruitt was the worst EPA chief in history,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “His corruption was his downfall, but his pro-polluter policies will have our kids breathing dirtier air long after his many scandals are forgotten.”
Like Trump, Pruitt voiced skepticism about mainstream climate science and was a fierce critic of the Paris climate agreement. The president cheered his EPA chief’s moves to boost fossil fuel production and roll back regulations opposed by corporate interests.
But despite boasts of slashing red tape and promoting job creation, Pruitt had a mixed record of producing real-world results. Many of the EPA regulations Pruitt scrapped or delayed had not yet taken effect, and the tens of thousands of lost coal mining jobs the president pledged to bring back never materialized.
Pruitt was forced out following a series of revelations involving pricey trips with first-class airline seats and unusual security spending, including a $43,000 soundproof booth for making private phone calls. He also demanded 24-hour-a-day protection from armed officers, resulting in a swollen 20-member security detail that blew through overtime budgets and racked up expenses of more than $3 million.
Pruitt routinely ordered his EPA staff to do personal chores for him, including picking up his dry cleaning and trying to obtain a used Trump hotel mattress for his apartment. He had also enlisted his staff to contact conservative groups and companies to find a lucrative job for his unemployed wife, including emails seeking a Chick-fil-A franchise from a senior executive at the fast-food chain.
Pruitt’s job had been in jeopardy since the end of March, when ABC News first reported that he leased a Capitol Hill condo last year for just $50 a night. It was co-owned by the wife of a veteran fossil fuels lobbyist whose firm had sought regulatory rollbacks from EPA.
Both Pruitt and the lobbyist, Steven Hart, denied he had conducted any recent business with EPA. But Hart was later forced to admit he had met with Pruitt at EPA headquarters last summer after his firm, Williams & Jensen, revealed he had lobbied the agency on a required federal disclosure form.
Pruitt also publicly denied any knowledge of massive raises awarded to two close aides he had brought with him to EPA from Oklahoma. Documents later showed Pruitt’s chief of staff had signed off on the pay hikes, indicating he had the administrator’s consent.
The slew of damaging revelations, many of which came to light through media reports and public records lawsuits filed by environmental groups, triggered more than a dozen investigations related to Pruitt’s conduct by EPA’s Office of Inspector General, the House Oversight Committee and other federal watchdogs.
It was not immediately clear how Pruitt’s resignation might affect those ongoing probes. No longer a federal employee, Pruitt can’t be compelled to speak or otherwise cooperate with the inspector general’s investigation. As a private citizen, he could still be subpoenaed to testify before Congress, but Republican-led committees have thus far shown little appetite in forcing him to do so.
Jennifer Kaplan, a spokeswoman for EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins, said Thursday that the office was “assessing and evaluating” its ongoing audits and investigations in the wake of Pruitt’s departure.
Sen. John Barrasso, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and until Thursday a strong defender of Pruitt, said Trump made the right decision to accept the resignation.
“It has become increasingly challenging for the EPA to carry out its mission with the administrator under investigation,” said Barrasso, who is from Wyoming.
Pruitt is the latest Trump Cabinet official to lose his job over ethics issues. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was fired in March amid questionable travel charges and a growing rebellion in his agency about the privatization of medical care. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was fired last year after it was disclosed he took costly charter flights instead of commercial planes.
“Mr. Pruitt’s brazen abuse of his position for his own personal gain has been absolutely astounding, rivaled only by the silence of far too many in Congress and in the White House who allowed Mr. Pruitt’s unethical, and, at times, possibly illegal behavior to go unchecked,” said Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, long a vocal critic of Pruitt’s.
Everybody’s health goals are different.
Some need to drink more water.
Others have to lose weight.
A few want to run a marathon.
That’s why organizers of Fit 608 said they wanted to create an open community that can support everyone’s needs.
Fit 608 is a summer fitness challenge organized by the city of Janesville with help from the Rock County Public Health Department and SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville, said Molly Nolte, management information specialist for the city.
The challenge takes place on a community Facebook page, facebook.com/fit608, that anyone can join to post questions, talk to others and find resources on healthy living updated daily, Nolte said.
It is a self-led process. Each individual creates his or her own goals, Nolte said. The Facebook group gives people a space to collaborate and encourage one another.
More than 200 people have joined the group since it started June 8, which Nolte considers a “great success.” The challenge will continue until Labor Day.
The idea developed during a planning meeting for the opening of Janesville’s outdoor fitness court, Nolte said.
Organizers discussed how they could improve health in Rock County at a low cost, Nolte said. From those conversations came Fit 608.
Kathryn Scott, spokeswoman for St. Mary’s, said the community groups are aware of the poor health outcomes seen in Rock County.
According to the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, a national program focused on improving health county by county, among Rock County adults:
“We really view ourselves as having a social contract across Rock County with all of those that we serve at different sites of care,” said Ben Layman, president of St. Mary’s Hospital. “...that social contract really compels us to understand that we can’t do it alone but really be critically advancing care wherever we can.”
St. Mary’s is a sponsor for the fitness court and provides Fit 608 with information on healthy living for the Facebook group, Scott said.
But hospital leadership want to go beyond financial support and interact with people in the community, Layman said.
Participation in Fit 608 can lead to improved long-term physical and behavioral health, Layman said.
Preventative care has become a priority for the hospital in recent years, Layman said.
“At the end of the day, we would like to see them in the clinic rather than the hospital because that means we are doing a better job as a community of preventative (sic) care,” Layman said.
Gary Groelle, a retiring Rock County Sheriff’s Office captain running for sheriff, said his personnel file at the sheriff’s office has been “spiked” with a disciplinary report Groelle calls “phony.”
Groelle claims the report is an attempt by Sheriff Bob Spoden to “smear” Groelle’s campaign.
Spoden told The Gazette that claims of him or the sheriff’s office “spiking” Groelle’s personnel record to hamper Groelle’s campaign are “patently not true.”
Groelle said a sheriff’s office discipline report suggests he could have faced being fired over incidents the sheriff’s office investigated over the past six months. The investigations looked at claims Groelle had fallen asleep on the job and that on two occasions he had violated campaign finance rules and “breached department ethics” in his run for sheriff.
Groelle said he learned of the possibility he could face firing only after he announced his retirement in early June. He said the sheriff’s office investigations seemed to heat up this year after he announced his run for sheriff.
“The incumbent sheriff wants to discredit my campaign, and these recent reports are politically motivated,” Groelle wrote in a news release Thursday. “He says I’m sleeping on the job.”
Groelle is running as a Democrat. Spoden, who is not seeking re-election, also is a Democrat.
The Rock County Sheriff’s Office issued its own press release late Thursday as a rebuttal to Groelle’s release.
“Knowing that Mr. Groelle might claim a political motivation for any action taken by the incumbent Sheriff, all disciplinary actions in this matter were investigated by outside entities, and decisions were issued by either the chief deputy alone, or the chief deputy working in cooperation with the county’s human resources director,” the release states.
The report placed in Groelle’s personnel file was a normal part of such a process, according to the release.
The release reads, in part: “Mr. Groelle’s efforts to paint these issues as a personal one are simply false.”
Groelle had campaigned while on duty more than once, even after a supervisor told him in a written notice not to, according to the sheriff’s office release. Investigators found Groelle had racked up “flex” overtime pay while campaigning on duty, according to the release.
Investigations into allegations Groelle had slept on duty started early this year, Spoden said. Spoden said he asked the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office to investigate so the local sheriff’s office could remain “objective.”
A Waukesha County investigator found Groelle “had repeatedly slept on duty,” according to the Rock County Sheriff’s Office release issued Thursday.
Groelle had received a “written reprimand” earlier this year for allegations he slept at work, Spoden said. Groelle had filed a grievance over the reprimand. Spoden said a Madison independent hearing officer found the reprimand was “just and appropriate.”
Groelle said he has sleep apnea, and he said Spoden and some of his other supervisors have known about his medical condition for a year. Groelle said one incident of drowsiness or sleepiness Spoden claimed to have witnessed happened about a year ago. At the time, Groelle said, he had already started getting treatment for apnea.
Groelle is expected to face fellow Democrat Troy Knudson, a commander at the sheriff’s office, in the August primary. The winner would face Rock County Sheriff’s Capt. Jude Mauer, a Republican, in November.
The personnel files for Groelle and the other candidates running for sheriff are generally considered to be public records. Groelle said he expects the personnel files, including a report saying he could have faced firing for sleeping or being drowsy at work, to be released late this week because media outlets had asked to see them.
The Gazette has filed an open records request seeking the personnel files for Groelle and the other candidates for sheriff.
The sheriff’s office investigated Groelle earlier this year after Groelle acknowledged he illegally held a “50/50” meat raffle for his campaign while he was off duty. Groelle last month said he had given money from the raffle to charity once he learned he had violated state rules on raffles.
In a release, he said the Rock County District Attorney’s Office “concluded no charges were appropriate” for Groelle’s illegal meat raffle, which Groelle called an “honest mistake.”
Groelle said afterward the sheriff’s office hired a Milwaukee lawyer to “grill” Groelle on the raffle.
Groelle announced his retirement from the sheriff’s department in early June, about the same time he acknowledged he had made a mistake by tying a meat raffle to his campaign.
Another ethics infraction in the report, Groelle said, involves him posing in uniform at a community function and posting photos of it on his campaign’s Facebook page.
Groelle told The Gazette he had been planning to retire for “months,” and he said the sheriff’s office investigations into his conduct had no connection to his retirement.
Groelle said he first saw the sheriff’s office report in an email from the sheriff’s office after he asked about the status of one of the investigations. The disclosure that he could face firing, Groelle said, came in that email—weeks after he had already given his notice to retire.
Groelle said that after media outlets asked for sheriff candidates’ personnel records, Spoden “made efforts to assure that a disciplinary report on these allegations would be in the documents released.”
“This sheriff asserts that a 36-year veteran of the sheriff’s office should be fired for having sleep apnea and making a mistake off duty,” Groelle said. “Under the current administration, there seems to be a wide range of discretion in what is considered relevant for disciplinary actions. This also seems to coincide with my announcement to run for sheriff.”
Spoden said it took time for the information to be gathered on Groelle’s conduct and for the sheriff’s office to make determinations based on an independent investigation by an outside lawyer into campaign finance infractions.
Spoden said the sheriff’s office found Groelle’s conduct “rose to the level of consideration of termination” based on the chief deputy’s recommendations.
Spoden said firing Groelle would have been a lengthy process. He said Groelle’s “abrupt” retirement in June made dismissal a “moot point.”
Four remaining Beloit School Board members will fill three open school board seats left vacant by resignations this week amid a firestorm of controversy.
School board President Laurie Endres, Vice President Kris Klobucar and Treasurer Shelly Cronin submitted resignations after the other four board members held a special meeting Tuesday night to discuss the “conduct of the board president,” board member Kyle Larsen said.
During the meeting, which was attended only by the four who convened the meeting, the members voted to strip Endres of her title as president. Shortly after the decision, Larsen said, each of the three board members submitted their resignations.
Now, the board is marching forward to fill the three vacancies. Larsen said the board is holding a special meeting Saturday, and members will open an application process to choose three new members, who could run for election in April.
“The sooner we have those (seats) filled, the better,” Larsen said. “In a week and a half, we’ll have a lot more answers.”
Email exchanges between Endres and acting Superintendent Darrell Williams sparked the special meeting Tuesday night, Larsen said.
On June 19, Larsen said, Endres and Klobucar were scheduled to meet with Williams to flesh out a school board meeting agenda. Larsen said scheduling conflicts left Williams absent from the meeting, but Endres and Williams shared differing versions of what happened after the scheduling misfire.
Endres claimed Williams never showed up to the meeting, while Williams claimed nobody notified him of the meeting, even though he was in a different meeting down the hall, Larsen said.
The two detailed their differing accounts in emails. Larsen said the four board members discussed the emails during the Tuesday night meeting, which resulted in Endres’ termination as president and snowballed into the three resignations.
Larsen was the only board member or school official The Gazette could reach for comment Thursday.
Controversy has swirled around the Beloit School Board for the past month. Its decision to hire an outside interim superintendent—rather than hire Williams as interim—has stirred some members of the community who have thrown full-fledged support behind Williams, Larsen said.
Williams, who previously was assistant superintendent before then Superintendent Tom Johnson resigned for health reasons, was hired as acting superintendent until the board fills the interim superintendent vacancy with an outside candidate, Larsen said.
“I believe many of the board members felt the need for an outside interim superintendent to come into the district,” Larsen said. “I believe now, we need that outside advice and experience to help guide the board. After this, it is even more important that the interim superintendent has the skills to help a very young board, a very new board.”
Though Larsen said the events that caused the three resignations are not associated with the district’s ongoing interim superintendent search, members of the community, including the Beloit Concerned Citizens for Fairness, are planning a protest of the recent controversies at the board’s special meeting Saturday.
“There’s a void of leadership,” NAACP of Rock County President Dorothy Harrell said Thursday. “The three resignations are proof of that. It’s a dysfunctional board. They’re not in the position to hire a new superintendent. They’re too consumed with self-interest.”
Harriet “Hazel” Christophersen
Patricia M. Cordell
Betty J. Frank
William J. Herr
Richard P. Jordan
Mary Kay Nordmeyer
Beulah A. Rudolph
Thomas W. Walton
Mark R. White