New emails obtained by the Sierra Club have revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency has taken secrecy and caution to an extreme when it comes to appearances by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, not out of concerns about safety—as the agency has insisted—but out of a desire to protect Pruitt from difficult questions and bad press.
The emails, which come from 10,000 documents released through a freedom of information lawsuit, gave insight into the discussions in which EPA officials planned to tightly control the environment of all appearances and balked from any that appeared to become too public. According to the New York Times, they show instances in which officials mandated audience members only ask questions written and approved ahead of time by the EPA in what was otherwise ostensibly a public meeting; postponed releasing information about events until they were over; conducted damage control when reporters found out about an appearance before it happened; attempted to exert more control over the Freedom of Information Act process; and otherwise cracked down on opportunity for public scrutiny.
The officials even divided all potential attendees of any events as “friendly” and “unfriendly” as ways of planning how tightly to control them. Pruitt has been known for his secrecy, which both in part arises from and contributes to his large number of scandals. He refuses to hold press conferences and has attempted to keep his schedule a secret. In large part the agency has justified these practices by citing “unprecedented” numbers of threats against Pruitt and the agency.
But documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show that many of these threats were largely harmless. One even centered on a Newsweek cover, taped to an EPA elevator, with a mustache drawn on Pruitt’s face. According to BuzzFeed, Pruitt received 16 threats in 2017, which was a higher number than former EPA head Gina McCarthy received before him. But it appears none of the threats were considered that serious. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General, which investigated some of the threats, quickly closed the investigations without action or sent them to the Department of Justice, which declined to pursue them. Pruitt’s safety concerns have led him to have a 24-hour security detail, which by early April had cost taxpayers more than $3 million. Pruitt also spent many thousands on first-class flights, a luxury he justified, confusingly, by its “level of protection.”