Scott Pruitt with some trees in background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit.

The Sierra Club Declared War on Scott Pruitt—and Won

An inside look at how the environmental group’s campaign against Pruitt ended up uncovering his wildest misconduct.

Of Scott Pruitt’s many bad weeks of press, the first week of June may have been his worst. Pruitt had been under scrutiny since his appointment as head of the Environmental Protection Agency for his close ties to the industries he was supposed to regulate. He had done little to quiet his skeptics. For the past few months, news stories had detailed his questionable interactions with energy lobbyists and exorbitant spending on air travel and security. By June, the stories had reached almost comical extremes. The heady week began when the Washington Post detailed his office’s purchase of a dozen fountain pens for $1,560. Three days later, the New York Times reported that he had directed an aide to acquire a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel. The next day, the Post revealed that Pruitt had used his position to try to land his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise.

Pruitt’s resignation on July 5 was the culmination of this relentless wave of scandals. (Chief of staff John Kelly reportedly called the agency to say it was time for Pruitt to go soon after a CNN story revealed that Pruitt had suggested to the president that he replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general.) Congressional investigators, whistleblowers, and reporters were all instrumental in unearthing the administrator’s ethical lapses and prompting his exit from office. But some of the wildest misconduct from the Pruitt era may never have made it into the public eye were it not for the Sierra Club, an advocacy organization that focuses on environmental policy.

Documents from the Sierra Club’s Freedom of Information Act requests led to stories about the used mattress and the Chick-fil-A franchise—likely violations of ethics rules stating that government officials cannot have staffers run personal errands for them or use their offices for personal gain. The club’s FOIA requests were what revealed that Pruitt’s top aide, Millan Hupp, had signed off on the purchase of the customized silver fountain pens and journals embossed with Pruitt’s signature, along with the total price of the order: $1,670. Hupp resigned on June 6, five days after the piece was published.

“We did not expect to find thousands of dollars in fountain pens and Chick-fil-A,” said Elena Saxonhouse, the senior attorney for the Sierra Club who led the FOIA effort. Nor had the organization set out to refashion itself into a political opposition-research shop. The Sierra Club typically engages in environmental philanthropy and issue advocacy. During the Obama era, the club was primarily engaged in lobbying for progressive energy and pollution regulations and in shutting down coal plants as part of its Beyond Coal campaign, efforts that are still ongoing. Headquartered in Oakland, California, the Sierra Club has 3 million members and supporters and more than 60 chapters nationwide. It took in more than $71 million in donations and grants in 2016. Its biggest programs, such as Beyond Coal and Our Wild America, which focuses on protecting public lands, each cost millions of dollars per year.

The Sierra Club’s goal in sending FOIA requests was to uncover and make public Pruitt’s cozy relationships with lobbyists, which could serve as a backdrop for its real work: suing to prevent Pruitt from rolling back the EPA’s leak-detection and -repair program, clean-car standards, and other regulations. While Pruitt’s ethical lapses wouldn’t necessarily show up in a court ruling, the Sierra Club hoped they’d stick at the back of a judge’s mind. “Judges are human beings,” said Pat Gallagher, the director of the Sierra Club’s environmental-law program. “They read the newspaper.”

In other words, getting Pruitt to resign was not the organization’s primary mission. That it happened anyway was more serendipitous than intentional—a perfect storm of the club’s (and others’) legal strategy, the public’s hunger for Trump-related scandals, and Scott Pruitt’s own brazen corruption. But it was also not a completely unalloyed success: Pruitt’s departure momentarily stalled his deregulatory agenda, but in ways it has left the Sierra Club back where it started, with President Trump still in office but with fewer fancy fountain pens to uncover.

Saxonhouse, the head of the FOIA team, became interested in defending the environment while on family trips as a kid. Their vacations were almost exclusively to national parks. She had her first taste of activism while attending college at Yale, where she fought against coal plants in Connecticut. “I might have worn a smokestack costume at some point,” she said. After graduating from law school, she worked at a couple environmental firms before joining the Sierra Club in 2008. During the Obama administration, Saxonhouse had been involved in implementing the Clean Power Plan at the state level, but that work came to a halt when Pruitt and Trump took office, so she had an open docket.

The club formed the FOIA team at the beginning of the Trump administration to barrage the EPA, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, and other agencies with information requests. The team was made up of Sierra Club staffers who now had time for other projects, paralegals with technical expertise, and outside lawyers who had approached the organization with offers to do pro bono work in the wake of Trump’s election.

In February 2017, at around the time the Senate voted 52–46 to confirm Pruitt, Saxonhouse and a team of five began formulating a FOIA strategy that would allow them to aggressively hound the administrator. “Rather than just reacting every time we saw them do something bad that gets reported,” she recalled thinking, “let’s go on the offensive.” It was a marked change from the Obama era, when the club’s federal efforts were spent advocating for much of the EPA’s agenda, such as the Clean Power Plan and smog rules.

Going on the offensive meant using public information laws like FOIA—compelling federal agencies to release documents and records upon request had been a valuable tactic for the Sierra Club in the past, most notably against Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001. At the beginning of his term, President George W. Bush appointed Cheney to lead an environmental-policy group. The Sierra Club teamed with the right-leaning Judicial Watch to file requests for details about the group’s secretive meetings with CEOs of energy corporations and sued Cheney for the information in a case that went to the Supreme Court. Though the court’s ruling went in Cheney’s favor, the club succeeded in drawing public attention to the shady cabal. Saxonhouse’s team believed FOIA could similarly be used to keep an eye on Pruitt. It wasn’t alone: The Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, and other conservation groups launched their own FOIA campaigns.

Pruitt had been on the Sierra Club’s radar for years. In his previous role as the attorney general of Oklahoma, he was a perpetual thorn in the side of the EPA, suing the agency 13 times in order to impede rules to reduce air and water pollution. Pruitt helped lead the conservative movement against the Clean Power Plan, a signature regulation from the Obama era aimed at cutting carbon emissions. (Ironically, by eventually rolling back the plan, he would free up Saxonhouse to focus on FOIA.) The club also knew that Pruitt had a long record of siding with industry donors over regulators on issues ranging from chicken-manure pollution in waterways to gas-well methane emissions.

Pruitt’s earliest decisions in federal office were everything conservation groups had feared. In the first four months of holding the position, Pruitt dismantled or blocked more than 30 environmental rules, including a ban on a pesticide linked to developmental disorders in children and measures to prevent explosions at chemical plants. “It was expected, but it was still difficult, because Pruitt was attacking literally every single lifesaving protection on the books to protect air, water, our climate, and the structure of the EPA itself day in and day out,” said Trey Pollard, the Sierra Club’s national press secretary, of the reaction within the organization. “These are protections that people in the Sierra Club and across the progressive movement had worked to secure for years.”

The Sierra Club immediately took to the courts to block the rollbacks. The FOIA team believed that the documents it uncovered would be useful in these lawsuits. In addition to swaying judges’ impressions with his scandals, the Sierra Club’s lawyers hoped to use FOIA’d communications about specific rule-making decisions to show Pruitt was suppressing science or flip-flopping on environmental stances as a favor to industry contacts. When agencies want to defend a rule change in court, they often provide records that document the decision-making process. The materials acquired through the Sierra Club’s FOIA request could help lawyers argue that the EPA was lying or hiding something.

Over the course of the spring of 2017, Saxonhouse’s team zeroed in on Pruitt’s communications outside the EPA, hoping to find evidence of his obeisance to industry figures. They also focused their attention on the communications of 22 employees whom he brought with him during a supposed hiring freeze at the EPA. This cohort included longtime scheduling aides Sydney and Millan Hupp, who are sisters, chief of staff Ryan Jackson, and policy chief Samantha Dravis. (Sydney Hupp and Dravis would also leave the agency by the end of Pruitt’s tenure.)

The team submitted its first FOIA request in April and continued to file them into the summer, eventually sending about a dozen, for everything from emails to schedules. The Freedom of Information Act dictates that federal agencies have 20 business days to fulfill these requests unless there are “unusual circumstances.” There was virtually no response from the EPA within that window. “There’s an automatic response so you know they’ve gotten it, but it was pretty much radio silence,” said Saxonhouse. The Sierra Club’s lawyers sent a letter threatening to take the matter to court if the EPA didn’t comply, but it did little to nudge the agency to produce the records. By August, the Sierra Club had tired of waiting. It was clear that the EPA would not comply with the requests unless compelled by a judge, and the club sued the following month. Advocacy groups filed more than 50 public-information lawsuits against the EPA during the first two years of the Trump administration.

In January, the court sided with the Sierra Club and ordered the EPA to provide the records in a more timely fashion. Lawyers for both sides agreed to a five-month production schedule, with about one document release per month beginning in March. Until then, the team was left to wait. It had little idea how important this court decision would eventually be.

When the disclosures finally came, they arrived in files that were often more than 20,000 pages long. The FOIA team wasn’t sure at first how useful the documents would be, fearing that EPA employees would make it a point not to reference their indiscretions in their official communications. It took a group of 12 people, including members of the club’s policy and legal departments, about a week of reading late into the night in their offices, kitchens, and living rooms to review each document dump. What made the review particularly difficult was the sheer amount of white noise contained within the records. “There were probably a thousand pages of Politico and Bloomberg news alerts [in the EPA officials’ email inboxes] that you had to just read to make sure you weren’t missing anything in the middle,” said Adam Beitman, the Sierra Club’s deputy director of media relations.

As the team looked through emails, schedules, phone logs, and other records of Pruitt’s first year in office, the timing of the document dumps was starting to look fortuitous. In the period between the Sierra Club’s legal victory and the delivery of the most substantial records, Pruitt’s notoriety in the press had mushroomed.

In March, ABC News broke a story using property records showing that Pruitt had been living in a $50-a-night condo in D.C. that was partly owned by the wife of high-profile energy lobbyist Steven Hart. “That really opened the floodgates for interest in the corruption angle and made it such that the reporters knew that they were going to find more through digging,” said Beitman. “Everyone’s critical eye suddenly got a lot sharper.” It wasn’t just environmental reporters who wanted the documents now; it was anyone who wanted a scoop revealing corruption in the Trump administration.

The FOIA team began to realize its efforts were going to pay major dividends. On May 1, the Times reported that a lobbyist had helped plan Pruitt’s trip to Morocco in 2017, going so far as to arrange meetings with foreign dignitaries. Justine Cowan remembers receiving a document dump about 30 minutes after the story was published. Cowan, an attorney working pro bono, had led the club’s main FOIA lawsuit covering requests for records from the EPA’s top brass. She was one of many lawyers who approached the Sierra Club seeking volunteer opportunities after Trump’s election. “It was that cliché of ‘What would you have done in certain times in history?’ ” she said. “[My husband and I] decided that we would dedicate some of my time to protecting the environment even if I might not get paid.”

After reading the Times article, she realized the lobbyist’s name was in the emails she’d sued for as well, which had to do with Pruitt’s trip to Australia (later canceled because of Hurricane Harvey). As was the case with the Morocco trip, lobbyists had a hand in planning the itinerary for Pruitt’s visit to Australia and setting up meetings with foreign officials. It was proof of a trend. “That was a day when we realized what we had and became more methodical,” Cowan said.

The team began reviewing the documents with a fresh eye toward corruption and scandal. Some of the first big stories that came out of the Sierra Club’s FOIA documents were published later that month and concerned Pruitt’s lavish trip to Italy and canceled plans for Australia. The Environmental Integrity Project and news outlets had already dug up the exorbitant costs of his Europe trip. Yet the Sierra Club’s documents painted a fuller portrait of Pruitt’s travels, surfacing emails demonstrating that, for example, the administrator stayed at the five-star Hotel Eden in Rome, where one night can run between $500 to $16,000, and dined at the La Terrazza restaurant, which costs a minimum of 130 euros (about $150) per person. They also revealed the extent to which corporate lobbyists coordinated Pruitt’s itinerary by setting up meetings and even suggesting sightseeing opportunities, like a tour of the Australian outback. “It almost sounded as if this guy was a travel agent for Pruitt, where he was describing the various things they could do between meeting with climate deniers and going to an LNG [liquefied natural gas] export facility,” said Saxonhouse.

Then came the first week of June and the set of blockbuster headlines produced from the club’s FOIA work.

The club’s documents rarely told the whole story, but rather served as leads for reporters to chase down. The Washington Post’s senior national affairs correspondent Juliet Eilperin, who broke major news using the Sierra Club’s documents along with reporters Brady Dennis and Josh Dawsey, said that she and her colleagues spent hundreds of hours reviewing the materials. They knew about the production schedule that had resulted from the club’s litigation and were ready to grab documents as soon as they were uploaded to the government’s FOIA website. “When these documents came out, every single time, [we] would go through from top to bottom and read thousands and thousands of pages,” said Eilperin. “There was no other practical way to do it.” Some reporters used the searchable indexes that the FOIA team’s researchers put together with the help of Logikcull software, allowing for quick searches using keywords.* But they still had to know what to search for.

As the most attention-grabbing stories came out, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups did a victory-lap-slash-publicity-blitz. The Sierra Club’s media-relations team was in contact with reporters to alert them to the document dumps and flag items of interest. They also helped seed questions for reporters attending the White House press briefings based on the scandals their litigation had revealed.

After Pruitt’s $1,560 fountain-pen purchase was revealed, Beitman and national press secretary Trey Pollard asked an intern to deliver an office-supplies catalogue to the EPA’s headquarters to alert Pruitt that more reasonably priced writing utensils were available. The guard posted at the entrance asked the intern to leave.

The wider “Boot Pruitt” campaign, an organizing effort put on by a couple dozen advocacy organizations, toured an inflatable boot in the spring and summer.

And within the office, employees made a poster out of the headlines of articles that had relied on the club’s documents:

Sierra Club poster with headlines of Pruitt scandals.
Courtesy of Elena Saxonhouse

On the afternoon of July 5, Cowan was at the mall buying a pillow with her niece when her phone’s email app began blowing up with news of Pruitt’s resignation. “I clicked on my email and made a bit of a scene. I wasn’t screaming, but I was definitely overjoyed,” she said. The cashier, seeing her reaction, asked her if she had won $1 million. “It was something better,” she told him. Cowan quickly left the store, forgetting her pillow and purse in the process.

Saxonhouse was supposed to have the day off. “We were just finishing up lunch, and my phone started blowing up,” she recalled. She was elated but also astonished. It was not at all certain that Pruitt would step down. His behavior was so egregious that the conservative-leaning Weekly Standard and National Review had called for his resignation. So had some Republicans in Congress. But even then, many theories were floating around for why Trump seemed content to let Pruitt stay on. The president admitted he was “not happy“ with Pruitt, yet claimed that the administrator was doing a “fantastic job” with the EPA. “There had been so many scandals that had been revealed already,” Saxonhouse said. “It seemed like there would never be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

When the team started the FOIA project, members thought the most they would do was make Pruitt’s job harder in the courts. They hadn’t thought he would lose the job altogether, and for reasons that ultimately had less of an impact on what the Sierra Club was founded to protect—the environment—than his actual policies. The organization still plans to use some of the communications it uncovered for its Clean Power Plan litigation, but the biggest splash that the FOIAs made were in headlines about his personal dealings.

“I do the work that I do here because I care about stopping the pollution that’s making people sick and die,” Saxonhouse says. “It’s about the policies and it’s not to embarrass anybody or get revenge, which is kind of what seemed to end up happening.”

Two weeks after Pruitt’s resignation, the Sierra Club’s work is hardly done. In some ways, it may be even harder. As the shock of Pruitt’s resignation began to fade, speculation at the organization turned to Andrew Wheeler, the deputy administrator of the EPA who would be stepping in as chief. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, worked at the EPA in the early 1990s, and expressed admiration for Pruitt’s work steering the agency. It’s widely assumed that Wheeler will continue to realize Pruitt’s deregulatory vision for the EPA and maintain similarly cozy contacts with industry executives. The conventional wisdom is also that he won’t share Pruitt’s propensity for buffoonish spending.

This puts the Sierra Club in a tough spot. Its original strategy had been to delay rule-unraveling by waving ethical red flags in front of judges—a job made easier by Pruitt’s exaggerated lapses. The Sierra Club can try that again, and indeed the organization even has a head start: It will continue to pursue a similar FOIA strategy if Congress, as expected, confirms Wheeler as the new EPA administrator. Plus, many of the decisions Pruitt made are now under investigation from federal watchdogs. For example, the Government Accountability Office is looking into Pruitt’s dismissal of 12 nonpartisan scientists from the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors and his alleged abuse of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Wheeler can’t simply pick up the baton and continue where Pruitt left off.

But there’s little reason to think the club is headed for another Pruitt-level success. “[Wheeler] will be more careful, so we will have to fight our fights on more traditional grounds,” noted Pat Gallagher, the environmental-law program director. And hidden within that message is a tough truth for the Sierra Club, and frankly anyone who cares about the environment right now. It wasn’t the egregious attempts at deregulation that infuriated the public enough to bring the level of outrage to the boil that eventually forced Pruitt out. It was the “Can you believe this?” nature of his petty graft. In some ways, it is the flip side of Trump’s reliance on anecdote and simple but not always relevant examples. People will remember Pruitt’s pens, and less so how he dismantled the Clean Power Plan. As Saxonhouse said, “If I had my way, the biggest scandal would’ve been his reworking of the agency basically just to increase polluter profits.”

If the public won’t pay attention to polluter profits on its own, the club’s work to highlight Pruitt’s ethical lapses was certainly an effective way to at least derail his deregulatory agenda. Perhaps that’s all the Sierra Club can really hope for while Trump is in office. “I don’t think Donald Trump is going to appoint a friend of the environment,” said Gallagher. Running out the clock has become one of the most effective tactics in modern American politics: The minority party and like-minded interest groups throw everything they can at those in power to make sure that no big decisions are made until a new administration takes over. The Sierra Club’s biggest achievement on the federal level would simply be to prevent the current administrator from making major changes to the agency until a greener president arrives, stalling by any means necessary.

*Correction, July 20: The story originally misspelled the name of the Logikcull software used by some reporters to search the documents.