Science

The Ousting of Scott Pruitt Is a Victory for Whistleblowers

Exposing his misdeeds was an act of bravery and conscience—and a huge personal risk.

Pruitt looks down. There's a flag behind him and a flag pin on his lapel.
Scott Pruitt takes questions at the White House on June 2.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The ousting of Scott Pruitt on Thursday followed a caravan of scandals for the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, many of which were so absurd and tragicomic—the $43,000 soundproof booth! The extravagant fountain pens! The prospective Chick-fil-A franchise!—that I can only hope someone in Hollywood is eyeing his downfall for a big-screen adaptation.

Pruitt’s corruption was so blatant and far-reaching—even for the Trump administration—that it’s shocking it took this long for him to be forced out. But this week, Republicans seemed to finally realize they could not continue to justify his level of extraordinary self-dealing, particularly during an election cycle, and finally cut Pruitt loose. While lots of us are simply breathing a sigh of relief that there is still a line to hold when it comes to corruption, it’s worth pausing to realize that it might not have happened if two groups hadn’t acted: whistleblowers who came forward to expose Pruitt’s misdeeds and watchdog groups that sued and dug in order to unearth them.

While some of Pruitt’s foibles were made public by government entities, like the Government Accountability Office and the EPA’s inspector general, much of the inappropriate behavior was exposed by current and former employees of the Environmental Protection Agency, many of them career staffers who had stayed on despite the deregulatory, pro-industry zealotry of the Trump administration and then bravely risked their careers to ensure the public knew how a government official was wasting tax money on personal extravagances. Other stories of corruption came from records obtained by open-records requests, which, were it not for watchdog groups who demanded sunshine in places the EPA would rather have kept in the shadows, would never have made it to the public’s eye.

Fulfilling public-records requests is a function of the government and is critically important for journalists and transparency activists working to ferret out corruption and abuses of power. But whistleblowers aren’t a function of anything other than their own bravery and conscience—which is why their contribution to Pruitt’s downfall (however brief it may be) is particularly worthy of contemplation and applause.

Take the recent revelation of Pruitt and his aides’ secret calendars, which were kept to conceal controversial meetings with industry representatives and other dealings that Pruitt wanted to omit from the public record. That revelation, reported earlier this week, was thanks to Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, Kevin Chmielewski, who left the EPA in February after raising questions with Pruitt over the administrator’s spending and management practices.

In June, the New York Times reported on four current and former EPA staff members who came forward to speak with reporters about how Pruitt made awkward and improper demands of his staff, including working with an industry executive to obtain tickets for a sold-out college football game and working with the White House to land a summer internship for Pruitt’s daughter. And before that, also in June, the Washington Post spoke to current and former EPA aides who corroborated reporting that Pruitt was eager to help his wife start earning a salary, bolstering the revelations in public records released by the Sierra Club detailing how the EPA chief’s scheduler reached out to Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, to arrange a meeting about Pruitt’s wife becoming a franchisee of the fast-food chain.

In March, when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse wrote a letter to the EPA’s inspector general detailing how the EPA administrator was using his Washington security detail for personal family vacations at unprecedented cost to taxpayers, the senator’s information, according to CNN, had come from an unnamed source, presumably from within the EPA. Later, it was two former EPA employees who told Politico that Mario Caraballo, the deputy associate administrator of EPA’s Office of Homeland Security (which penned a report concluding that Pruitt’s security spending couldn’t be justified by citing credible threats to the administrator), lost his job because senior officials at the EPA were dissatisfied with the report. In April 2017, an internal EPA memo from the agency’s acting financial officer was leaked to Vox; it detailed how the Trump administration had planned to cut 31 percent of the agency’s funding. And it was current EPA employees who spoke to the New York Times a couple months after Pruitt took his post as chief administrator, revealing that he was no longer letting EPA employees on to the floor where he worked, that they were no longer allowed to take notes or carry cellphones during their meetings with Pruitt, and that he was constantly flanked by armed guards.

That isn’t nearly a comprehensive list of what managed to seep out of the Environmental Protection Agency during Pruitt’s tenure. And though Congress pressed for internal investigations and watchdog groups FOIA’d their hearts out, it’s doubtful any of it would have been as effective without the staff at the EPA who stayed to work under Pruitt even as he actively worked to undermine his own agency’s mission. Because they stuck around, rather than quitting out of protest or frustration, and were brave enough to speak to reporters, we now have a fuller idea of how dismal everything really was.

While it’s certainly for the good that Pruitt is no longer in a position of power, his interim successor, Andrew Wheeler, isn’t a tree-hugger by any stretch—to the contrary, he’s likely a craftier deregulator than even Pruitt. We can only hope that, despite President Trump’s repeated attacks of the media and threats to whistleblowers, people who stay at the EPA will continue to seek out reporters, even if the scandals are less sexy. Their efforts paid off once.
Maybe they’ll pay off again.