Live Briefing: Scott Pruitt on Capitol Hill: Round 3 in Progress


“I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on housing and security and travel,” she said. “Instead of seeing articles about efforts to return your agency to its core mission, I’m reading articles about your interactions with the industries that you regulate. Some of this undoubtedly is a result of the ‘gotcha’ age, but I do think there are legitimate questions that need to be answered.’

Here’s what to watch for as Mr. Pruitt testifies.

What the Democrats are likely to ask

Democrats intend, as they did last month, to throw the kitchen sink at Mr. Pruitt. And they have plenty to ask about.

In the three weeks since Mr. Pruitt testified before the two House committees, the public has learned that the administrator has allowed lobbyists and Washington power brokers to arrange his foreign travel, that Mr. Pruitt’s aggressive effort to shroud his meetings and speaking engagements in secrecy was done primarily to avoid uncomfortable and unexpected questions and not out of a concern for security as his staff had claimed, and that E.P.A. aides took steps to conceal a dinner Mr. Pruitt held in Rome with Cardinal George Pell last year after they learned that the cardinal had been charged with sexual abuse.

That’s in addition to a raft of other longstanding questions about Mr. Pruitt’s first-class travel and the need for a 24-hour security detail of at least 20 people that has cost taxpayers more than $3 million so far.

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the panel, said Wednesday that he had asked the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate whether the E.P.A. acted improperly when it appeared to mock Democrats on Twitter after the Senate voted to confirm the agency’s second-in-command, Andrew Wheeler.

The tweet, sent from the agency’s official account on April 13, said, “The Senate does its duty: Andrew Wheeler confirmed by Senate as deputy administrator of @EPA. The Democrats couldn’t block the confirmation of environmental policy expert and former EPA staffer under both a Republican and a Democrat president.” Mr. Udall asked the accountability office to issue a legal opinion on whether the tweet violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda.

“This communication did nothing to further the public’s understanding of the environment or public health — and as an act of pure partisan taunting, the case is clear for why it represents a violation of federal law,” Mr. Udall said in a statement, adding, “We can add this investigation to the ever-expanding list of Scott Pruitt’s ethical transgressions.”

What Republicans are expected to talk about

This one is tougher. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chairwoman of the appropriations committee’s environment panel, called for Mr. Pruitt to testify at a time when Republican support for Mr. Pruitt appeared to be on a downswing. Since then, however, Republicans have tamped down criticism of the E.P.A. chief.

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The Behavior That Put Scott Pruitt at the Center of Federal Inquiries

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency faces nearly a dozen federal inquiries into his practices. We break down the accusations by category.



OPEN Graphic


One notable exception is Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

Mr. Grassley on Tuesday threatened to be the first Republican to call on Mr. Pruitt to resign, citing his frustration with the administrator over waivers the E.P.A. has given to small fuel refineries exempting them from a federal ethanol mandate on the nation’s gasoline. While Mr. Grassley is not a member of the committee that Mr. Pruitt will face, his concerns are shared by other corn-state Republicans and could become an issue at the hearing.

If past is prologue, though, Mr. Pruitt is likely to hear Republicans express concerns about his stewardship of E.P.A. in their opening statements but mostly draw attention to the regulatory rollbacks that they, and many of their constituents, support.

What Pruitt is expected to say

Last time around, Mr. Pruitt repeatedly shifted blame to members of his staff for the spending and ethical issues dogging him.

He said his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, had been solely responsible for giving $72,000 in raises to two aides who previously worked with Mr. Pruitt in Oklahoma. He said career staff members had signed off on spending $43,000 to install a secure phone booth, an expense that was ultimately found to violate federal law. And he said his security detail had insisted he fly first class for his own protection.

In one exchange with Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Mr. Pruitt had to be asked three times if he was the E.P.A. administrator before answering in the affirmative, but avoided answering whether the buck stopped with him.

“That’s not a yes or no answer,” Mr. Pruitt replied then. It’s a safe bet Mr. Pruitt will continue to tread as carefully Wednesday, and the E.P.A. spokesman, Jahan Wilcox, said in a statement that Mr. Pruitt remained focused on policy.

“From advocating to leave the Paris Accord, working to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, declaring a war on lead and cleaning up toxic Superfund sites, Administrator Pruitt is focused on advancing President Trump’s agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship,” Mr. Wilcox said.

Where the president stands

President Trump has remained steadfast in his support for Mr. Pruitt, despite the arguments of several White House aides — including John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff — that the administrator should be fired. Asked last week if he still had confidence in Mr. Pruitt, the president replied, “I do.”

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Pruitt’s Coziness With Lobbyists Includes Secretly Buying a House With One


Mr. Pruitt’s business relationship with Mr. Whitefield has not been previously reported. A spokesman for the E.P.A. said that Mr. Whitefield held a one-sixth stake in the company and had “received taxable income” from it. Two of the other owners, The Times previously reported, were Kenneth Wagner, a law school friend of Mr. Pruitt’s who now holds a top political job at the E.P.A., and Jon Jiles, a health care executive who contributed to Mr. Pruitt’s political campaigns.

“Whitefield was a practicing lawyer who had business in Oklahoma City,” said the spokesman, Jahan Wilcox. “Pruitt was a practicing lawyer and a part-time legislator who only stayed in the house when he was in Oklahoma City for business.”

Mr. Whitefield died in a plane crash in 2006. A relative confirmed to the The Times that he had shared the home with Mr. Pruitt.

Mr. Pruitt is now facing 11 federal investigations into matters including his condominium rental in Washington and his spending on travel and security at the E.P.A. The Times reported on Tuesday that Mr. Pruitt had allowed another lobbyist friend to play an unusually central role in arranging his agenda during a visit to Morocco in December. Just months after the trip, the Moroccan government hired the lobbyist, Richard Smotkin, as a $40,000-a-month foreign agent.

Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Whitefield and the other investors in the shell company bought the Oklahoma City home in December 2003 for $375,000, a discount of about $100,000 from what Ms. Lindsey had paid a year earlier. Her employer, the telecom giant SBC Oklahoma, now AT&T and formerly known as Southwestern Bell, used a relocation firm to handle the sale and picked up the shortfall under her retirement package. AT&T said the home had been appraised twice, for an average value of $390,000, before the sale.

A month later, in January 2004, Mr. Pruitt held a news conference at the State Capitol to announce a bill that he said would reduce workers’ compensation costs for businesses by eliminating unnecessary litigation.

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The agenda for Mr. Pruitt’s visit to Morocco in December was also influenced by his lobbyist ties.

Credit
Environmental Protection Agency

In a news release, he cited figures from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, a workers’ compensation industry group, which said his proposal would save employers in Oklahoma at least $100 million. At the time, Mr. Whitefield was a lobbyist for the group, according to state disclosures.

Mr. Whitefield later became a registered lobbyist for Oklahomans for Workers’ Compensation Reform, a political committee co-chaired by Mr. Funk, the businessman who owned the minor league baseball team with Mr. Pruitt and several others.

Mr. Funk attended the news conference in January 2004, and a February 2005 update from the political committee, co-written by Mr. Funk, noted Mr. Pruitt’s work on legislation that would cut “litigation and the expensive cost drivers that are present in our lawyer-rich system.”

The workers’ compensation battle played out for years in Oklahoma, and news reports at the time referred to Mr. Pruitt as a leading Republican in dealing with Democrats and the governor’s office on the issue. Ultimately, after a partisan struggle, a compromise bill was signed into law in June 2005, with Mr. Pruitt as a main negotiator.

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Mr. Pruitt in 2004, when he served in the Oklahoma Senate.

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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Mr. Pruitt described the outcome as “a small step in the right direction,” according to a report at the time in The Journal Record, a business and legal newspaper in Oklahoma. But when he ran for lieutenant governor in 2006, he cited his efforts on workers’ compensation among his main achievements. Mr. Funk served as the chairman of that unsuccessful campaign.

When Mr. Pruitt left the State Senate that year, his fellow lawmakers applauded his advocacy on workers’ compensation. In his parting remarks, Mr. Pruitt told colleagues: “I’ve always tried to approach what we do here in this body with a commitment to sound policy and trying to do things for the right reason. I believe that good politics is doing the right thing.”

Mr. Pruitt and the other investors in the shell company — Capitol House L.L.C. — sold the Oklahoma City house in 2005 for $470,000. It is unclear whether any of the proceeds went to Mr. Pruitt. The group also had at least one paying tenant, Jim Dunlap, then a Republican leader in the State Senate, who said he rented a room above the garage.

Mr. Jiles, the investor who is listed as manager of Capitol House, said in an email that each investor owned 16.66 percent of the company, and while none of them lived permanently in the house, they all had a right to stay there. The company, he said, should not be referred to as a shell company since it “acquired assets consisting of the house and its furnishings and incurred liabilities, filed tax returns and issued K-1’s to it’s members as required by law” — a reference the tax form known as a Schedule K-1.

“Nothing about the transaction, Capital House, L.L.C. or the investment was unusual, inappropriate, illegal or otherwise objectionable to anyone involved on either side of the transaction,” Mr. Jiles said.

At a hearing last week in Washington of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, lawmakers asked Mr. Pruitt about the house purchase and the use of a shell company — a lawful practice that is often used to obscure the people who have a financial interest in it, and typically is set up as a limited liability company. Mr. Pruitt’s name does not appear on any public documents related to the company; nor does Mr. Whitefield’s.

Mr. Pruitt said the company was not a shell company, but a limited liability company.

“Which is normally how you buy real estate in Oklahoma,” he said.

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News Analysis: For Many, Life in Trump’s Orbit Ends in a Crash Landing


Mr. Trump expressed outrage on Thursday about the toll exacted on some people close to him. Dr. Jackson, the White House physician and rear admiral who withdrew as nominee for secretary of Veterans Affairs after accusations of drinking on official trips and badgering his staff, is “an incredible man” whom Democrats were “trying to destroy,” Mr. Trump said on “Fox & Friends.”

The president attributed it to the toxic atmosphere of the capital, saying he warned Dr. Jackson. “I did say welcome to Washington,” he said. “Welcome to the swamp. Welcome to the world of politics.”

Mr. Trump likewise said that Mr. Cohen, his longtime lawyer who paid $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford, the pornographic film actress known as Stormy Daniels, before the 2016 election and now faces a federal investigation, is “a great guy” who “did absolutely nothing wrong” in that matter.

But as he has with other advisers who have gotten in trouble, the president also distanced himself, suggesting that Mr. Cohen was in trouble for business dealings separate from any legal representation he had done for Mr. Trump. “I’m not involved, and I’ve been told I’m not involved,” he said.

Over many decades, people who have entered Mr. Trump’s circle have discovered that they are bit actors in a movie he sees himself starring in.

“People are not people to him, they are instruments of his ego. And when they serve his ego, they survive, and when they don’t, they pass into the night,” said Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter on “The Art of the Deal,” Mr. Trump’s first book. “Ultimately, the fate of anyone who casts their lot with Trump is — you are passing through. And I just can’t think of anybody for whom it is not true.”

Jack O’Donnell, the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, and a vocal critic of his former boss, said many people have cycled through his world remarkably quickly without leaving much of an impression on Mr. Trump.

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Hired and Fired: the Unprecedented Turnover of the Trump Administration

Since President Trump’s inauguration, staffers of the White House and federal agencies have left in firings and resignations, one after the other.



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“This is an individual who completely lacks compassion and empathy, and therefore the recycling of people, people crashing and burning, it means nothing to him,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “He might put on a public frown for a day because he’s upset that, in his mind, the admiral got railroaded out. But Trump couldn’t care less about the admiral.”

The president tapped Dr. Jackson because he had come to like him and was impressed by him even though he had little management experience to run the government’s second-largest department. Shortly after his selection, several senior White House officials warned Dr. Jackson that it was a bad idea and that it was likely to end poorly.

But Mr. Trump is a transactional person, and many have made transactional decisions to work for him understanding the risks. For some, it is a sense of public service and duty to country. For others, it is a calculation that the return on investment will be worth it. Indeed, Mr. Cohen has attracted enormous attention over the years as he built business ties because of his affiliation with Mr. Trump.

Some who have come and gone managed to benefit from the experience in their own way despite the ordeal. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary who was mocked on “Saturday Night Live” and maligned by the president and the news media, nonetheless has received lucrative speaking contracts and has a book coming out in July. Mr. Tillerson and Gary D. Cohn, the former national economics adviser, lost power struggles, but both still have hundreds of millions of dollars to console themselves, and friends say no one should feel sorry for them.

Still, former advisers like Michael T. Flynn, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates have all been charged with or pleaded guilty to crimes and are looking at prison time.

Others worry they may face the same fate. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency whose spending and security practices were spotlighted Thursday at a contentious House hearing, may yet lose his job.

Other presidents have seen associates get caught up in investigations or scandals that were highlighted or magnified because of their closeness. Plenty of advisers, aides and friends of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton met untimely ends to their political careers or even went to prison, and critics of both presidents often said they did not seem to care about the consequences to those around them.

The closer someone gets to a president, the harsher the spotlight can be. Many who seek the power and stature of the White House somehow convince themselves that their own foibles or misdeeds will not be exposed, only to learn otherwise, or become intoxicated by their new positions of influence and exercise poor judgment. And Washington can be especially unforgiving. “Here, ruining people is considered sport,” Vincent W. Foster Jr., a longtime Clinton friend and aide, wrote before killing himself in 1993.

Several people who have been close to Mr. Trump over the years say that he is exceptionally good at rationalizing his own behavior to himself, and compartmentalizing the types of personal catastrophes that would leave other people emotionally ravaged.

“I think that loyalty has always been a one-way street with Trump, and he doesn’t really care about the wreckages he engenders as long as he comes out where he wants to be,” said Tim O’Brien, a biographer who was sued by Mr. Trump over a book reporting that Mr. Trump had inflated his net worth.

“Ronny Jackson’s reputation would never have been in play had the president not put him up for this job,” Mr. O’Brien said, adding that in Mr. Trump’s mind, the issue is, “Ronny was great, but Washington is a snake pit.”

Michael D’Antonio, another Trump biographer, said, “Anyone who engages with the president and, before that, with him as a business person, had to practice self-defense even if they were his allies.”

“All that matters to him,” he added, “is what you say and do in the moment in front of him.”

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Scott Pruitt, on Capitol Hill, Deflects Blame for Ethical Lapses


While Democrats, who have called for his resignation, sought to force Mr. Pruitt to accept culpability for a variety of ethical missteps, he denied knowledge of or responsibility for the actions in question. Republicans, after briefly chastising Mr. Pruitt in their opening remarks, asked friendly questions that appeared calculated to allow him to talk about his policy proposals.

As reports about Mr. Pruitt have continued to increase, some White House staff members have urged Mr. Trump to fire the E.P.A. chief. Some Republican leaders have called for his resignation, and many in Mr. Pruitt’s own party have called for investigations into his actions. But analysts who watched his performance on Thursday said he did well.

Representative Ken Calvert, Republican of California and chairman of the appropriations subcommittee where Mr. Pruitt testified in the afternoon, called the administrator’s appearance “very professional.”

Asked if Mr. Pruitt should resign he said, “No.”

Ultimately, of course, the only opinion about Mr. Pruitt’s fate that matters is the president’s.

“I think his effort will be well received by the president,” Mr. Maisano said. He has more explaining to do, but it was a good effort to mend fences. There were no lethal blows.”

Mr. Pruitt is now the subject of 10 federal investigations, including questions about his office’s illegal purchase of a secure phone booth, his condominium rental agreement with the wife of an energy lobbyist, and accusations that he demoted or sidelined E.P.A. employees who questioned his actions.

Committee Democrats queried him sharply about the reports of his ethical lapses and pressed Mr. Pruitt on his rollbacks of environmental rules, in particular, a new policy, proposed this week, that would limit the E.P.A.’s use of scientific research in crafting new health and environmental rules. Scientists have deplored the proposed rule, saying that it would significantly limit the agency’s use of rigorous science.

“Administrator Pruitt has brought secrecy, conflicts of interest and scandal to the E.P.A.,” said Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where Mr. Pruitt testified Thursday morning. “You are unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust,” he said. “Every indication we have is you really should resign.”

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Mr. Pruitt at the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior and E.P.A., his second appearance before House members on Thursday.

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Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon and the chairman of the House Energy committee, offered light criticism before moving on to praising Mr. Pruitt for his efforts to roll back environmental regulations. “I am concerned that the good progress being made on the policy front is being undercut by allegations of your management of the agency and use of its resources,” he said. “These issues are too persistent to ignore.”

Conservative lawmakers from fossil-fuel producing states, who have long pushed for the rollback of E.P.A. regulations, bypassed even slight criticism of Mr. Pruitt, attributing the scrutiny on his actions to a political witch hunt.

Representative David B. McKinley, Republican of West Virginia, told Mr. Pruitt sympathetically that the attacks on him “have an echo of McCarthyism.”

In many ways, the past 14 months of Mr. Pruitt’s tenure has been building to this moment.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, he made a name for himself aggressively battling the agency he now leads. Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation was fiercely opposed by Democrats, environmentalists and even E.P.A. employees. Since taking the helm of the agency, Mr. Pruitt has worked to strip the E.P.A. of funding, reduce its staff and curb its ability to develop new regulations on fossil fuel pollution.

No E.P.A. director in history has achieved Mr. Pruitt’s level of notoriety. Since the agency was formed, its administrators have been second-tier Washington figures. But Mr. Pruitt’s antagonism toward climate science has made him a nationally-prominent and divisive figure.

Critics said that more than the ethical and spending issues, the real damage to the E.P.A. has been Mr. Pruitt’s systematic weakening of the agency’s ability to protect the environment and public health. While Mr. Pruitt’s performance in Thursday’s hearings may make or break his future within the Trump administration, many said his legacy was already set.

“It’s just been a flagrant, shameless series of calculated decisions to dismantle the country’s most successful domestic enterprise,” William K. Reilly, who led the E.P.A. under the first President George Bush, said of Mr. Pruitt’s leadership. “It’s really a national tragedy,” he said.

Graphic

The Behavior That Put Scott Pruitt at the Center of Federal Inquiries

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency faces nearly a dozen federal inquiries into his practices. We break down the accusations by category.



OPEN Graphic


At Thursday morning’s hearing, Representative Joe Barton of Texas, who has long denied the overwhelming evidence of human effects on climate change, offered sympathy. “Mr. Pruitt, you’re not the first victim of Washington politics,” he said.

Democrats unsuccessfully sought to pin down Mr. Pruitt on questions about his expenditures, and to force him to accept culpability for some the actions now under investigation.

Representative Tony Cárdenas, a California Democrat, asked about Mr. Pruitt’s soundproof booth, installed in his E.P.A. office at a cost of $43,000. The Government Accountability Office has ruled that the expenditure broke the law.

“I was not aware of the approval of the $43,000,” Mr. Pruitt told him, “and if I had known about it, congressman, I would not have approved it.”

Mr. Cárdenas responded that “if someone was spending $43,000 in my office, I would know about it.”

Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, launched into questions about Mr. Pruitt’s involvement in real estate deals in Oklahoma that have been reported in The New York Times, referring to the purchaser of his home as a “shell company.”

“It’s not a shell company,” he said quickly, and added that such financial structures were commonly used to purchase real estate in Oklahoma.

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Protesters interrupted Mr. Pruitt’s testimony during the morning hearing.

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Pete Marovich for The New York Times

She then asked Mr. Pruitt whether he had paid taxes on rent he received. He said the issue had been handed over to an accountant.

“I’m not doing this to hassle you. I’m doing this as an elected official,” Ms. DeGette said as she ended her questions. “Everything we do has to be to the highest ethical standards.”

Representative Paul Tonko, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy’s subcommittee on the Environment, pressed Mr. Pruitt on his claims that he was unaware that the E.P.A. had used an obscure legal provision to grant hefty raises to political appointees, bypassing approval by the White House. Mr. Pruitt has said the decision was taken by his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson.

“Did you authorize Mr. Jackson to sign those documents for you?” Mr. Tonko asked.

“I was not aware of the amount and I was not aware of the bypassing that was going on,” Mr. Pruitt replied.

Even some Republicans criticized Mr. Pruitt for repeatedly blaming his staff.

“If you say give me a phone booth, and your staff does it, you should say, I’m at fault,” said Representative John Shimkus, Republican of Illinois, the chairman of the House Energy subcommittee, speaking to reporters after the morning hearing. “It’s never good to blame your staff. Or at least do it behind closed doors.”

And Representative Anna G. Eshoo, a California Democrat, used her turn at questioning to try to get Mr. Pruitt to accept culpability. “You have a solid record of violating ethics rules from the state level to the federal government,” she told Mr. Pruitt. “I think it’s an embarrassment.” And then she asked, “Do you have any remorse? Yes or no?”

Mr. Pruitt responded: “I think there are changes I’ve made already. I’ve made a change from first class to coach travel.” Ms. Eshoo returned to her call for a yes-or-no answer, and asked Mr. Pruitt whether he would reimburse the government. He launched into a long response, but she cut him off.

“With all due respect, I may be elected, but I’m not a fool,” she said. “This is not ‘dodge-question’ day.”

Correction: April 26, 2018

An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect home state for Representative John Shimkus. He represents Illinois, not Pennsylvania.

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Live Briefing: Scott Pruitt, Under an Ethics Cloud, Faces Lawmakers


Mr. Pruitt said he had delegated the authority to grant such approvals, or as he put it, “There was delegation given in my authority.” He said, “I was not aware of the amount, and I was not aware of the bypassing that was going on.” Mr. Tonko said the answer suggests “you have no idea what is going on” under Mr. Pruitt’s name at the agency.

Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, was even more direct in his opening remarks. “You are unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust,” he told Mr. Pruitt. “Every indication we have is you really should resign.”

He followed up by asking Mr. Pruitt whether he had sidelined or demoted at least five employees who disagreed with him, demanding a “yes or no” answer as to whether he had called for these changes.

“I don’t ever recall a conversation about that,” Mr. Pruitt said.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Mr. Pallone responded.

“You shouldn’t take that as a yes,” the administrator pushed back.

Mr. Pallone continued to press. “Has it always been your practice to fire people who disagree with you?”

He then moved on to talk about a toxic chemical that was on track to be banned when action was delayed by the agency under Mr. Pruitt.

Mr. Pruitt responded that the review had not been closed. Mr. Pallone responded that the lack of action on that chemical and others “makes a mockery of the E.P.A.”

A more cordial welcome from Republicans

Republicans also chastised Mr. Pruitt in opening remarks, but their questions tended to be much more gentle.

Representative Joe Barton of Texas, who has long denied the overwhelming evidence of human effects on climate change, offered sympathy. “Mr. Pruitt, you’re not the first victim of Washington politics,” he said.

As to Mr. Pruitt’s penchant for first-class travel, Mr. Barton said: “You’ve been attacked for flying first class. Was that illegal? It may look bad, but it’s not illegal.”

Representative David B. McKinley, Republican of West Virginia, told Mr. Pruitt sympathetically that the attacks on him “have an echo of McCarthyism.”

Graphic

The Behavior That Put Scott Pruitt at the Center of Federal Inquiries

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency faces nearly a dozen federal inquiries into his practices. We break down the accusations by category.



OPEN Graphic


The phone booth

Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, drilled down on some of the ethics questions concerning Mr. Pruitt’s expenses in office and his past financial dealings.

She first asked about Mr. Pruitt’s famous soundproof booth, installed in his E.P.A. office at a cost of $43,000. The Government Accountability Office has ruled that the expenditure broke the law.

Mr. Pruitt had previously testified that the expense was appropriate. In light of the recent ruling, Ms. DeGette asked whether Mr. Pruitt knew that the purchase had violated the law and whether anyone would be penalized.

“We are investigating this internally,” he said.

“Would you agree that public officials should be held to the highest standards of ethical conduct?” she asked. He responded that he did.

Representative Tony Cárdenas, a California Democrat, also brought up the phone booth.

“I was not aware of the approval of the $43,000,” Mr. Pruitt told him, “and if I had known about it, congressman, I would not have approved it.”

Mr. Cárdenas responded that “if someone was spending $43,000 in my office, I would know about it.”

Travel expenses

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Mr. Pruitt on Capitol Hill on Capitol Hill. He was not summoned for questioning on his alleged misconduct. Both appearances Thursday are routine budget hearings.

Credit
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

Representative Anna G. Eshoo, a California Democrat, had scathing criticism for Mr. Pruitt when her turn for questioning came. “You have a solid record of violating ethics rules from the state level to the federal government,” she told him. “I think it’s an embarrassment.”

Then she asked: “Do you have any remorse? Yes or no?”

Mr. Pruitt responded: “I think there are changes I’ve made already. I’ve made a change from first class to coach travel.”

She returned to her call for a yes-or-no answer, and asked Mr. Pruitt whether he would reimburse the government. He launched into a long response, but she cut him off.

“With all due respect, I may be elected, but I’m not a fool,” she said. “This is not ‘dodge-question’ day.”

Oklahoma real estate

Ms. DeGette also questioned Mr. Pruitt about his involvement in real estate deals in Oklahoma, referring to the purchaser of his home as a “shell company.”

“It’s not a shell company,” he said quickly, and said that such financial structures were commonly used to purchase real estate in Oklahoma.

She then asked Mr. Pruitt whether he had paid taxes on rent he received. He said such issues had been handed over to an accountant.

“I’m not doing this to hassle you. I’m doing this as an elected official,” Ms. DeGette said as she ended her questions. “Everything we do has to be to the highest ethical standards.”

Research ‘transparency’

When asked about his announcement this week that the E.P.A. would restrict the kinds of scientific studies that it would use in forming policy, Mr. Pruitt responded: “It seems to me that it’s common sense that as we do rule-making, we base it on scientific conclusions that we should be able to see the data and methodology that causes those conclusions. That makes sense to me.”

Tensions with California

Mr. Pruitt said that the agency was “not at present” planning any efforts to revoke a decades-old waiver that allows California to enforce its own emissions standards on automobiles.

But he would not say definitively whether that was a final position. The E.P.A. is “working very diligently and diplomatically with California to find answers on this issue,” Mr. Pruitt said, in response to questions from Representative Doris Matsui, a California Democrat who has sought to protect her state’s ability to regulate emissions.

Air pollution

Mr. Pruitt tried to explain major shifts the E.P.A. has made during his tenure in an air pollution program that governs electric power plants and other factories.

He said the changes, made under a program called New Source Review, were meant to simplify the steps companies have to go through to renovate to their plants, which sometimes require them to enhance pollution controls.

“What we want to do is to provide clarity,” Mr. Pruitt said. “As they make investments to improve outcomes as far as emission reductions they are not going to face new permitting requirements.”

Environmentalists have accused Mr. Pruitt of taking these steps to help the coal industry at the expense of air quality.

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Scott Pruitt Before the E.P.A.: Fancy Homes, a Shell Company and Friends With Money


According to real estate records, the 2003 purchase of the house for $375,000 came at a steep discount of about $100,000 from what Ms. Lindsey had paid a year earlier — a shortfall picked up by her employer, the telecom giant SBC Oklahoma.

SBC, previously known as Southwestern Bell and later as AT&T, had been lobbying lawmakers in the early 2000s on a range of matters, including a deregulation bill that would allow it to raise rates and a separate regulatory effort to reopen a case involving allegations that it had bribed local officials a decade earlier. Mr. Pruitt sided with the company on both matters, state records show.

In 2005, the shell company — Capitol House L.L.C. — sold the property for $95,000 more than it had paid. While shell companies are legal, they often obscure the people who have an interest in them, and none of Mr. Pruitt’s financial disclosure filings in Oklahoma mentioned the company or the proceeds — a potential violation of the state’s ethics rules.

The Oklahoma City deal, which has not been previously reported, was one of several instances in which Mr. Pruitt appeared to have benefited from his relationships with Mr. Kelly and Mr. Wagner while in state politics.

During his eight years as a Republican state senator, Mr. Pruitt also upgraded his family residence in suburban Tulsa from a small ranch-style home to a lakefront property in a gated community. In addition, he bought a sizable stake in a minor league baseball team, and took a second job at Mr. Wagner’s corporate law firm. Mr. Kelly’s bank, SpiritBank, would be there for much of it — providing financing for Mr. Pruitt’s Tulsa home and his stake in the baseball team, as well as the mortgage for the Oklahoma City house.

Mr. Pruitt’s interactions with SBC also show that his blurring of lines with lobbyists has roots in his Oklahoma years. One of the issues at the E.P.A. that has gotten Mr. Pruitt in trouble with government watchdogs involved his renting a room in Washington for $50 a night from the wife of an energy lobbyist who has had business in front of the agency.

Lobbyists and others in Oklahoma state politics who encountered Mr. Pruitt recalled him as a tough competitor who always had his eye on a higher office. Some called him a “Boy Scout” who was stingy with his money, while others said privately that he had exuded a sense of entitlement — that rules did not apply to him.

David Walters, a former Oklahoma governor and Democrat, described Mr. Pruitt as someone who looked out for himself over the needs of constituents, especially during his years as attorney general.

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“For those ego-minded politicians, it would be pretty cool to have this house close to the capitol,” said Marsha Lindsey, the lobbyist who previously owned the home.

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Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

“I was disappointed to find him operating in a hyperpartisan manner and seemingly representing corporate interests over Oklahoma citizens,” Mr. Walters said.

In response to questions submitted by The New York Times about Mr. Pruitt’s finances in Oklahoma, an E.P.A. spokeswoman said Mr. Pruitt’s business dealings with Mr. Kelly and Mr. Wagner “were ethical” and his stake in the shell company “was a simple real estate investment.”

“Mr. Wagner and Mr. Kelly left high-profile positions in law and banking in Oklahoma, to serve in the administration,” the spokeswoman said in an email. “They are dedicated E.P.A. employees who have earned the respect and admiration of E.P.A. career employees across the country. They serve the country professionally, and transparently — and are committed to ensuring the programs they work on are successful.”

Rubbing Shoulders in Oklahoma City

The house on Northeast 17th Street in the historic Lincoln Terrace neighborhood here was built in 1928 and has a grand staircase and an arched doorway. Ms. Lindsey said one of the home’s attractions was that it looked out on the white dome of the State Capitol.

Mr. Pruitt stayed in the house for parts of 2004 and 2005, neighbors said. The residence put him within walking distance of his job — legislators worked only part of the year, mainly from February through May — and also near SBC Bricktown Ballpark, which was home to his baseball team, the RedHawks, now known as the Dodgers.

Jim Dunlap, then a Republican leader in the State Senate, said he rented a room from Mr. Pruitt above the garage. He was under the impression that Mr. Pruitt had bought the home as an investment with a group of lawyers, he said.

“This was a place where you slept and had dinner,” Mr. Dunlap said. “It was all above board.”

Oklahoma campaign disclosures filed by Mr. Pruitt at the time made no mention of the home purchase or the rental agreement with Mr. Dunlap. Real estate records show that the transfer of ownership from Ms. Lindsey, the lobbyist, was rather complicated and involved multiple steps — none of them with any public reference to Mr. Pruitt, though the E.P.A. spokeswoman confirmed that he was one of five co-owners of the shell company.

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The shell company was registered to Kenneth Wagner, an E.P.A. aide and law school friend of Mr. Pruitt’s.

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Maryland Department of Natural Resources

When asked whether such a disclosure would be necessary, the executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, Ashley Kemp, referred The Times to a 2005 ethics manual. The rules required disclosing “every business or entity” in which an official held securities valued at $5,000 or more. Securities were defined to include “documents that represent a share in a company.”

The E.P.A. spokeswoman did not respond to questions about Mr. Pruitt’s disclosure filings in Oklahoma.

In November 2003, Ms. Lindsey signed the deed of the home over to a relocation company SBC had hired to handle her move and severance. She was reimbursed for close to $475,000, the amount she had paid for the house in 2002, as her contract required, she said.

The next day, the relocation company signed the property over to Jon Jiles, a health care executive who has a range of business interests and made contributions to Mr. Pruitt’s political campaigns. Records show no mortgage was involved, and Mr. Jiles paid $375,000 in cash.

That December, Mr. Wagner officially registered the Capitol House shell company with the Oklahoma authorities, and Mr. Jiles transferred the deed to the newly formed company. Mr. Jiles was listed as a manager of Capitol House, and Mr. Wagner as the registered agent.

The following month, SpiritBank, where Mr. Kelly was chief executive, approved a mortgage in the amount of $420,000 in the name of Capital House L.L.C., another spelling of the entity.

Ms. Lindsey, the former lobbyist, said she had been focused on her impending move to Dallas, and had deferred the sale and other arrangements to the company’s relocation agent. She said she had known nothing about the involvement of the shell company and did not recall the final sale price. “The bottom line is — it is unusual to take a $100,000 loss on the house” after being on the market for just a few weeks, she said.

Asked about the drop in price, AT&T said in a statement that two independent firms appraised the house and that its average value came to $390,000. The valuation and sale were handled by the relocation business, the company added.

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The State Capitol in Oklahoma City. Lobbyists and others in state politics recalled Mr. Pruitt as a tough competitor who always had his eye on a higher office.

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Brett Deering for The New York Times

Mr. Jiles, in an email exchange, said he became involved because Mr. Wagner presented the house as “a good deal” and a convenient place to stay. He said he had no other business interactions with Mr. Pruitt.

“A cash transaction was most likely used because sellers will often sell for less if it’s a cash deal rather than a finance deal,” Mr. Jiles said. “And I was likely the one most able to do a cash deal at the time.”

In a statement, SpiritBank’s chief executive and president, Rick Harper, said the bank was legally prohibited from commenting on specific loans, but added, “SpiritBank is confident these loans were made in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.”

The deal came at a time when SBC was a major employer in the state and a lobbying force in Oklahoma City.

As president of SBC Oklahoma and a registered lobbyist, Ms. Lindsey said she entertained lawmakers at her home. Moreover, SBC was known to court lawmakers with gifts, including tickets for Mr. Pruitt and others to watch Oklahoma State University play in the men’s basketball Final Four in 2004, The Oklahoman reported at the time.

“It gives us a chance to try to build a relationship with a lawmaker or an official,” a spokesman, Andy Morgan, told the newspaper. “Events like that offer a much more relaxed atmosphere.” He added: “We’re one of the state’s largest employers. It’s important that lawmakers are informed about issues affecting our company.”

The prospect of another investigation into a longstanding bribery case had especially rattled SBC. In the early 1990s, an SBC lobbyist had been found guilty in federal court of paying a bribe to a public utilities commissioner to sway a vote that allowed the company to keep federal tax savings rather than disburse them to its ratepayers. But the vote itself was never overturned, and in 2003, another commissioner proposed reopening the investigation, claiming SBC still owed billions of dollars in refunds. The commissioner dropped his plans for an investigation after state legislators, and the attorney general at the time, Drew Edmondson, pushed back against the effort.

Later, when Mr. Pruitt became attorney general, he helped quash another attempt to revisit the SBC bribery case. In a March 2011 letter, Mr. Pruitt’s office warned that any commissioner who reopened the investigation could face prosecution for the misuse of public funds.

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Mr. Pruitt with Albert Kelly, a top aide at the E.P.A. Mr. Kelly, previously chief executive of SpiritBank, was recently barred from working in the finance industry.

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M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico

A Run of Good Fortune

Around the same time Mr. Pruitt invested in the house in Oklahoma City, he had finished a big business deal that involved Mr. Kelly, Mr. Wagner and a campaign donor who ran a large staffing company.

A baseball player in college, Mr. Pruitt bought an approximately 25 percent stake in the Oklahoma City RedHawks and became the team’s managing partner, making him a highly visible spokesman for the local team. Mr. Wagner also purchased a small stake, and Mr. Kelly’s bank provided financing for the deal, as first reported by The Intercept, which also disclosed the bank’s loans for one of Mr. Pruitt’s suburban Tulsa homes.

Mr. Pruitt’s main partner was Robert Funk, the business magnate who ran Express Services, the staffing firm. The sale price was not disclosed, but news reports suggested they paid over $11.5 million, with Mr. Funk carrying the biggest load.

Two months after the deal closed in November 2003, Mr. Funk attended a news conference where Mr. Pruitt announced legislation that would make it harder for Oklahoma workers to claim certain kinds of injury compensation, something that would benefit companies like Mr. Funk’s.

The relationship continued, with Mr. Funk serving as campaign chairman during Mr. Pruitt’s unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 2006. Mr. Pruitt announced his candidacy outside the ballpark and cited his efforts on workers’ compensation among his achievements.

After losing the election, Mr. Pruitt took a break from public office, but continued his business relationship with Mr. Funk, proposing a $200 million town center on a parking lot next to the ballpark. The City Council balked at the project, but Mr. Pruitt’s ambitions and prominence grew.

Back at home in Tulsa, Mr. Pruitt worked with Mr. Wagner’s firm, which had offices in SpiritBank’s building. As a corporate lawyer, Mr. Wagner frequently represented the bank, but also represented a used car dealership run by Mr. Pruitt’s family.

In 2004, Mr. Pruitt upgraded from a modest one-story home where his family had lived for over a decade to a $605,000 lakeside house a mile away. SpiritBank financed the home. The E.P.A. spokeswoman said Mr. Pruitt was able to afford the house “due to his sale of personal assets.”

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Mr. Pruitt with Robert Funk in 2003. They invested together in the minor league baseball team the Oklahoma City RedHawks.

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The Oklahoman

In September 2010, as Mr. Pruitt was on his way to successfully winning his race for attorney general, he and Mr. Funk announced that they had sold the RedHawks. They did not disclose the price, but Forbes estimated its value a few years later at $21 million. SpiritBank, where Mr. Kelly was still chief executive, “played a key role in facilitating” the deal by providing acquisition financing, a news release said.

As a candidate for attorney general, Mr. Pruitt was not required to disclose the extent of his assets and how much money he made, but there were hints that his finances had improved since his early days as a state senator. Early into his term, he and his wife paid $1.18 million for a 5,518-square-foot Cotswold-style stone residence, featured in a book on Tulsa homes. It has five fireplaces, a library and a guest apartment.

The Attorney General Years

During his six years as attorney general, Mr. Pruitt blazed a path of spending that holds new meaning now that his E.P.A. expenditures are the subject of investigations and growing political outrage.

Mr. Pruitt moved the attorney general’s outpost in Tulsa to a prime suite in the Bank of America tower, an almost $12,000-a-month space that quadrupled the annual rent. He required his staff to regularly drive him between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, according to several people familiar with his time as attorney general.

And he channeled state contracts to Mr. Wagner’s law firm, which was already doing business with the state.

From 2011 to 2017, state records show, the attorney general’s office awarded more than $600,000 in contracts to Mr. Wagner’s Tulsa-based law firm, Latham, Wagner Steele & Lehman — greatly increasing work with the firm, which had gotten a total of about $100,000 over the four years before that. These contracts are not competitively bid. The additional expenditures reflected an approach, contentious even among some fellow Republicans, to hire private lawyers for state business, often for cases challenging federal regulations.

“He said that these people had special expertise that his agency didn’t have,” said Paul Wesselhoft, a Republican former state representative. “He has an army of lawyers with expertise. He didn’t have to spend that extra tax money to hire another law firm. It didn’t seem frugal.”

Mr. Pruitt used the Bank of America building as a base for his growing political ambitions. Oklahoma Strong Leadership, a political action committee he formed in 2015 to help finance fellow Republicans’ campaigns, operated out of the building. The group shared a suite with another PAC tied to Mr. Pruitt, Liberty 2.0, as well as his campaign office.

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Scott Pruitt’s $43,000 Phone Booth Broke the Law, Congressional Auditors Say


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Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, at a White House meeting in February. The agency is required to notify Congress before spending more than $5,000 on office equipment.

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Tom Brenner/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency violated the law when it installed a $43,000 soundproof phone booth for the administrator, Scott Pruitt, a congressional watchdog agency found.

The Government Accountability Office said in a report on Monday that the E.P.A. was required to notify Congress before spending more than $5,000 on office equipment or decorations.

The E.P.A. said the secure phone booth was necessary “to make and receive phone calls and to discuss sensitive information, including classified telephone calls up to the top secret level.” The agency paid $23,000 for the phone booth and another $25,000 install a drop ceiling, remove closed-circuit television equipment and pour more concrete around the booth, according to agency contracts.

The G.A.O. said it was not taking a position on whether or not the installation of the privacy booth was necessary, but was focusing only on whether the agency violated the Antideficiency Act, which is designed to prevent the spending of money that has not been budgeted. Auditors wrote that the E.P.A.’s “failure to comply with a governmentwide statutory requirement that an agency notify the appropriations committees before it spends more than $5,000 for the office of a presidential appointee” was a violation of the law and should be reported to Congress and the president.

In an eight-page letter to lawmakers, Thomas H. Armstrong, the G.A.O.’s general counsel, said the agency did not send advance notice to Congress when it paid $43,238.68 from its Environmental Programs and Management budget to pay for the installation of the soundproof booth.

Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, who requested the investigation along with three other members of Congress, said Mr. Pruitt was “blatantly breaking laws and ethics rules that protect taxpayers from government waste, fraud and abuse in order to help himself to perks and special favors.”

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At E.P.A., Pruitt’s ‘Sheriff’ Clashed With Critics of Spending


While in Italy, Mr. Pruitt “refused to stay at hotels recommended by the U.S. Embassy, although the recommended hotel had law enforcement and other U.S. resources on site,” according to the letter, in which the lawmakers ask Mr. Pruitt to turn over documents related to the claims. Instead, Mr. Pruitt chose to stay “at more expensive hotels with fewer standard security resources,” while bringing along his own security team “at taxpayer expense.”

In addition, Mr. Perrotta played a central role in approving Mr. Pruitt’s regular use of first-class flights, and has often joined him in first class, including during the trip to Italy last June, for which travel costs totaled at least $120,000, according to public records. And when Mr. Pruitt wanted a secure place to make sensitive phone calls, Mr. Perrotta pushed for the construction of a $43,000 surveillance-proof booth in Mr. Pruitt’s office in Washington, over the objections of colleagues who had advocated a less expensive option. Mr. Perrotta also pressed, unsuccessfully, for a bulletproof vehicle for Mr. Pruitt and a bulletproof desk for his security detail.

From the time Mr. Pruitt arrived at the E.P.A., the Trump transition team requested increased security for him, suggesting that safety was a concern. But as Mr. Pruitt’s security measures and requests have grown over the past year, various internal reviews at the E.P.A. have questioned the need.

Mr. Perrotta, who joined the Secret Service in 1995 and moved to the E.P.A. in 2004, declined requests for comment left at his office at the E.P.A. and at his security consulting firm, Sequoia Security Group. An E.P.A. spokesman defended the heightened security measures, repeating previous E.P.A. assertions that Mr. Pruitt “has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats” and that “members of the president’s cabinet should be kept safe from these violent threats.”

A native New Yorker, Mr. Perrotta, 50, made a name for himself in the mid-1990s when he worked for the Bronx district attorney, investigating gambling and loan-sharking activities of the Gambino crime family, and then later helping efforts that led to the arrest and conviction of John Gotti, the longtime boss of the Gambino family.

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Mr. Pruitt traveled in first class last summer to Italy, where Mr. Perrotta used agency funds to hire local private security guards to protect him.

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Environmental Protection Agency

Longtime E.P.A. employees described Mr. Perrotta as a backslapper and a fast-talker who enjoys talking about his mob-busting days and has given the impression that he chafed under the leadership of others.

Since taking over the protective detail weeks after Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation in February 2017, Mr. Perrotta has cheekily referred to himself as the agency’s sheriff and has whistled the distinctive tune made famous by the Western film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” said two E.P.A. officials who worked with Mr. Perrotta. On occasion, he has worn a black cowboy hat and boots around the E.P.A. office, a move that some colleagues considered a lighthearted allusion to Mr. Pruitt’s home state, Oklahoma.

Mr. Perrotta, a polarizing figure in the agency, is viewed among some career officials as playing to Mr. Pruitt’s ego and security fears to seize power over rivals. The measures he advocated in the name of security provided Mr. Pruitt with perks more commonly associated with heads of state, and often came over the objections of top agency officials. Some of them complained that Mr. Perrotta was playing fast and loose with the rules, but that he could not be challenged because he was thought to have Mr. Pruitt’s blessing.

Ercole Gaudioso, a former New York Organized Crime Task Force investigator who worked the Gotti case with Mr. Perrotta, says he thinks his former junior partner, with whom he keeps in contact, may find the work of protecting a cabinet secretary boring by comparison.

“He was the guy who wanted to be out fighting the bad guy all the time,” Mr. Gaudioso said.

In a self-published 2016 book detailing his work in law enforcement, Mr. Perrotta acknowledged skirmishes during his career, particularly in its early days.

“It often appeared to me that my fellow agents and supervisors did not quite get me, my motivations and authenticity often maligned and misunderstood,” he wrote. “I have come to accept that I contributed to this misconception and false labeling in part because of my high level of energy.”

Mr. Perrotta became Mr. Pruitt’s security chief after the administrator removed Eric Weese, a special agent who had a reputation, even before Mr. Pruitt’s arrival, for closely following agency rules, even if it might mean standing up to political appointees, according to Fred Burnside, who led the E.P.A.’s criminal enforcement division from 2008 to 2010.

“We always encouraged anyone to speak up if they disagree with the direction of the organization,” Mr. Burnside said.

Mr. Weese had denied Mr. Pruitt’s requests to use lights and sirens when being driven in his agency-issued vehicle to restaurants and airports, and also made it clear he would be opposed to signing off on security waivers to allow Mr. Pruitt to fly in first class.

Mr. Perrotta not only indulged those requests, but also quickly moved to restrict access to Mr. Pruitt, making his office and the rest of that floor of the E.P.A. headquarters off-limits to anyone who was not on a list drawn up by Mr. Perrotta, said Ronald Slotkin, former director of the agency’s multimedia office.

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Kevin Chmielewski, right, a deputy chief of staff at the E.P.A., was placed on administrative leave after months of raising objections to Mr. Pruitt’s security spending.

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Delamarvanow.com

“We used to be friends,” Mr. Slotkin said, referring to Mr. Perrotta. Then, he said, “boom, overnight this list was blocking me from getting in.”

Mr. Perrotta urged Mr. Pruitt to take other steps in the name of security that struck some as excessive, including the surveillance-thwarting booth and the sweep for listening devices.

Sweeps are typically initiated by the agency’s homeland security office and are conducted by government personnel or certified outside contractors, two agency officials said. Mr. Perrotta, instead, turned to Mr. Steinmetz, a vice president at the security firm that Mr. Perrotta founded in 2013 and continues to work for even while on the E.P.A. payroll. The agency confirmed that Mr. Perrotta had gotten a waiver to maintain outside employment.

“It was an emergency, they needed it right away,” said Mr. Steinmetz, who had conducted security sweeps for other government agencies, but never previously for the E.P.A. “I dropped everything and took care of it.”

Mr. Steinmetz, who received $3,000 for the work, said none of the money went to Mr. Perrotta or his company. The E.P.A. did not respond to a question about whether the sweep turned up anything. But Mr. Steinmetz suggested it had been necessary because “there are people there working behind the scenes doing anything they can to cause embarrassment for this administrator,” including, he said, “holdovers from the previous administration.”

The sweep, conducted within weeks of Mr. Pruitt’s taking office in February 2017, inflamed tensions between Mr. Perrotta and the agency’s homeland security office, where officials were increasingly — and openly — skeptical of the expensive security demands.

Things got so heated that a scuffle broke out during a meeting last summer of the agency’s top security and administrative staff, according to attendees. They said that Mr. Perrotta traded expletives with Mario Caraballo, who until recently served as the deputy associate administrator of the homeland security office, and that the two men had to be physically separated.

Frictions persisted as Mr. Perrotta worked to consolidate power within the security detail, giving his team a top role in evaluating threats against Mr. Pruitt and determining the financial resources needed to combat them.

One part-time member of the security detail, John C. Martin, was removed when it was discovered that his cellphone had an application that allowed him to communicate confidentially, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The application was discovered after the E.P.A. did an audit of government-issued mobile devices, looking for secure applications such as Signal and WhatsApp, which could be used to communicate with members of the media, as well as for legitimate government work. Mr. Martin had raised questions internally about the bug-sweeping contract and the security booth, agency officials said.

Mr. Perrotta later instructed Kevin Chmielewski, a Trump administration political appointee who had served as Mr. Pruitt’s deputy chief of staff, to confiscate Mr. Martin’s gun and badge, according to agency officials. Mr. Chmielewski later told associates that he regretted carrying out Mr. Perrotta’s instructions, which he came to believe were retaliatory.

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Patrick Sullivan, the E.P.A. assistant inspector general investigating possible spending violations, served in the Secret Service with Mr. Perrotta. Even as Mr. Perrotta’s activities have come under scrutiny, the two men have been spotted together at a bar near the agency’s headquarters.

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

Mr. Perrotta also retained more than a dozen private security guards for Mr. Pruitt’s trip to Italy, a decision that would typically be made by the agency’s homeland security office and the State Department.

According to an E.P.A. official who was involved in the trip, Mr. Perrotta and the security guards attended a five-course meal at a Rome restaurant with Mr. Pruitt and his staff, a rarity for security personnel, who usually do not dine with those they protect.

Officials from the E.P.A.’s homeland security office, under Mr. Caraballo, questioned the need for all of the additional security expenses. “EPA Intelligence has not identified any specific credible direct threat to the E.P.A. administrator,” a memo from Mr. Caraballo’s office said in February.

After excerpts from the memo were made public by two Democrats in the Senate this week, Mr. Pruitt’s staff confirmed that Mr. Caraballo had been removed from his job. He is one of several career officials who have been reassigned or removed after challenging Mr. Perrotta’s implementation of enhanced security measures for Mr. Pruitt. Even political appointees have not been immune.

After months of objecting to Mr. Pruitt’s security spending, Mr. Chmielewski, who had been among the first employees of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was asked to surrender his credentials, electronic security card and parking pass to one of Mr. Perrotta’s agents late one night in the agency’s parking lot.

Mr. Chmielewski refused, got in his car and began driving to his family’s home in Maryland, at which point he got a call from Mr. Perrotta, according to an administration official briefed on the exchange and the letter sent Thursday by Democrats in Congress. If Mr. Chmielewski did not immediately return to the E.P.A. to surrender his credentials, security card and parking pass, Mr. Perrotta said he would drive to Mr. Chmielewski’s home that night and personally retrieve them.

Mr. Chmielewski reported the exchange, which he characterized as a threat, to the White House and to the E.P.A.’s internal affairs and criminal investigative divisions. Mr. Chmielewski, Mr. Martin and others who have crossed Mr. Perrotta have told associates that they are concerned Mr. Perrotta will not be held to account by the inspector general.

Even after Mr. Perrotta’s colleagues raised concerns about his oversight of Mr. Pruitt’s security, Mr. Perrotta and the assistant inspector general who oversees investigation, Patrick Sullivan, have been spotted drinking beers together at Elephant and Castle, a bar across the street from the E.P.A. headquarters. The men were both with the Secret Service before coming to the E.P.A. Mr. Perrotta initially worked in the inspector general’s office when he arrived at the agency, and moved to the security detail late in George W. Bush’s presidency.

A spokesman for the inspector general did not dispute that Mr. Perrotta and Mr. Sullivan were “friendly” but disputed that they socialized outside of work and added that the office has “impairment and impartiality requirements” intended to prevent bias in any investigation.

Mr. Steinmetz, the business associate of Mr. Perrotta, said he had been encouraged by Mr. Perrotta to be candid if contacted by the inspector general.

“We’ve got nothing to hide,” said Mr. Steinmetz. “I know the guy. I know that he’s straightforward. He’s honest.”

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Lawmakers’ Letter Claims Further Spending Abuses by the E.P.A. Head, Scott Pruitt


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Scott Pruitt, right, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, at a cabinet meeting at the White House this week.

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Tom Brenner/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, insisted on staying in luxury hotels that were costlier than allowed by government standards, while also pushing to fly on an airline not on the government’s approved list so he could accrue more frequent flier miles, one of his top former deputies at the agency has told congressional investigators.

The new allegations are detailed in a scathing six-page letter signed by two senators and three House lawmakers — all Democrats — whose staff members met this week with Kevin Chmielewski, who served as the E.P.A.’s deputy chief of staff until he was removed from his post after raising objections to this and other spending.

Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the E.P.A., said, “We will respond to members of Congress through the proper channel.”

Mr. Chmielewski told congressional staff members during a meeting this week that Mr. Pruitt would often seek to schedule trips back to Oklahoma, where he still owns a home, so he could stay there for weekends. “Find me something to do,” were the instructions Mr. Pruitt gave his staff, after telling them he wanted to travel to particular destinations, the letter says, quoting Mr. Chmielewski, who was expected to sign off on the trips.

When planning a trip to Italy, Mr. Pruitt “refused to stay at hotels recommended by the U.S. Embassy, although the recommended hotel had law enforcement and other U.S. resources on site,” according to the letter, which was written and sent to Mr. Pruitt, asking him to turn over documents related to the letter’s claims. Instead, Mr. Pruitt chose to stay “at more expensive hotels with fewer standard security resources,” while bringing along his own security team “at taxpayer expense.”

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Kevin Chmielewksi at the lectern at a Trump rally in Berlin, Md., in 2016.

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Stewart Dobson/Ocean City Today

For other trips, Mr. Pruitt pushed the agency to book him on Delta, even though it is not the federal government’s contract carrier, “because you want to accrue more frequent flier miles,” the letter says.

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In Red-State Races, Democrats Seek an Edge by Defying the N.R.A.


There is also a certain political expediency: Many of the Democrats airing misgivings about the N.R.A. and its views are now competing in primaries where they are playing to an audience of fellow Democrats and not yet the entire electorate. Their hostility to the N.R.A. in the spring could certainly fade by the fall, but in past election cycles, many candidates would have regarded openly crossing the N.R.A. as too risky even in primary races.

“I don’t know that voters would have been more receptive; I think that candidates would have been more timid,” Stacey Abrams, a Democrat running for governor of Georgia, said last month before she addressed a March for Our Lives rally near the southern tip of the Appalachian Trail and promoted her history of poor ratings from the N.R.A.

To be sure, some Democrats in conservative-leaning states, like Ms. Abrams, have long been willing to challenge the group, especially in urban areas — but there were rarely very many of them. Meanwhile, rural Democrats often did the opposite, and actively courted the N.R.A., whose seal of approval and potent ability to mobilize its members could lift a candidate of either party to victory.

That era is not completely over. But many Democrats have grown wary of an organization that they believe has effectively evolved into an extension of the Republican Party, and they have begun to wonder whether they would be better off putting some distance between themselves and the N.R.A. The most fervent supporters of gun rights, some Democrats reason, are unlikely to support their campaigns no matter what they do.

“I think those that are hypersensitive to this issue are likely not going to be voting for us anyway, and I understand that, because there are voters who believe that any discussion of the Second Amendment is the compromising of the Second Amendment,” said Walt Maddox, a Democratic candidate for governor of Alabama. “But I believe the vast majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans are not fearful of a discussion on this matter, especially if it’s reasonable, measured and common sense-oriented.”

For his own part, Mr. Maddox declares allegiance to the Second Amendment, but he declined to fill out the questionnaire that the N.R.A. sends to candidates. In the N.R.A.’s view, refusing to complete the questionnaire is “often an indication of indifference, if not outright hostility, to gun owners’ and sportsmen’s rights.”

Other Democrats have mounted far more pointed critiques of the group. The Democratic Party in Virginia, a state that retains a conservative streak despite recent Democratic successes, recently issued a statement referring to N.R.A. “blood money” and declaring that Virginians were excited about “kicking out politicians who value National Rifle Association money over the safety of their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers.”

And in Kentucky, a Democratic state representative from an overwhelmingly conservative district stood on the House floor in February to call for new gun control measures, and said he was surrendering his A rating from the N.R.A.

Some Republicans have also calculated that they can now afford to cross the group to some extent. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, who is running for the Senate this year, recently signed a Republican-backed gun-control package that was almost immediately challenged in a lawsuit by the N.R.A.

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While some red-state Democrats take on the National Rifle Association, others are treading more warily. Grant Kier, a Democrat running for Montana’s House seat, said he sees health care, not gun safety, as the dominant issue in the race. He chatted with voters on Sunday at the Ten Mile Creek Brewery in Helena.

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Lynn Donaldson for The New York Times

The mass shooting in Parkland, which helped prompt the legislation Mr. Scott signed, appears to have been a political turning point even in places like Montana, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of gun ownership and where candidates often talk about their hunting credentials.

At a candidates’ forum less than a week before the Parkland shooting, the Democrats vying for the party’s House nomination — there were then five — were asked whether they supported expanded background checks for gun purchasers. None said yes. Then came the rampage in Florida.

In short order, the race was infused with fresh calls to ban bump stocks, outlaw military-style weapons like the AR-15 and eliminate loopholes for sales at gun shows.

Mr. Heenan, one of the candidates in the race, soon released an essay apologizing for not giving “a more straightforward answer” to a grandmother who had asked him how he would help prevent gun violence.

Another candidate, Kathleen Williams, made prevention of gun massacres central to her platform, and later said, “If the N.R.A. wants to give me an F for that, then I will proudly stand with all of you and say that F means ‘fearless.’ ”

Lynda Moss, who is also running for the seat, spoke this week about a column she wrote years ago, when she described “how Montana’s gun policies became a facade of the N.R.A. — a false front used to broadcast fear and misinformation perpetuating the myth of the Wild West.”

Some supporters of gun rights said they were skeptical that attacking the N.R.A. would do any of the candidates much good in a state like Montana, where gun ownership is deeply entwined with the state’s history and culture.

“In Montana, every candidate is going to say, ‘I’m going to support the Second Amendment’ — and then some will add, ‘but,’ ” said Gary Marbut, the president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, who has helped push nearly 70 gun rights bills into state law since the 1980s. The suddenly vocal critics of the N.R.A., he said, were “clearly political opportunists.”

The group backed the Republican incumbent in the House race, Greg Gianforte, in a special election in 2017 and is expected to do so again this year, when he is favored to win re-election. Neither the N.R.A. nor Mr. Gianforte’s campaign responded to requests for comment for this article.

Some Democrats in the state are confident that their party can succeed with a candidate who pushes away from the N.R.A. but finds a way to appeal to individual gun owners.

“We’ve hit a moment in time where the N.R.A. is denigrating a whole lot of responsible gun owners, so it’s not that surprising that folks finally say, ‘Enough’s enough — they don’t represent me, and they don’t represent either the mainstream of America or the mainstream of firearm owners,’ ” Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, said in an interview in his office at the State Capitol.

Still, some Democrats in the race have remained cautious. Grant Kier, who is seen as one of the front-runners in the primary along with Mr. Heenan, recently called Mr. Marbut of the sport-shooting group to discuss gun rights.

“I think somebody who doesn’t respect people’s gun rights is not going to do well in Montana, period, regardless of the N.R.A.’s involvement,” Mr. Kier said. “I don’t see myself as running against the N.R.A.; I see myself as running against Greg Gianforte.”

He said he sees health care, not gun safety, as the dominant issue in the campaign. “I think that being sensitive to people’s desires to find sensible gun laws in our state and country is important, but I think there are far more issues on people’s minds that we need to be working on, too, and I think that’s how we win this election,” he said.

As the June 5 primary approaches in Montana, where the State Constitution decrees that the right to bear arms “shall not be called in question,” even those Democrats who have expressed deep misgivings about the N.R.A. appeared eager to show that they are not anti-gun.

“We love our wildlife, and we love a good elk burger,” Ms. Williams said. “That’s different than things that threaten our kids at school.”

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